RTD looks at the roots of Juneteenth and encourages celebrating freedom for all

Gisa McCray Simmons

Frederick Douglass once famously asked, "What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?" This poignant question underscored the disconnect between celebrating freedom and the reality of slavery for millions since 1776 in the U.S.

Juneteenth (a monikorfor "June 19") marks the day when federal troops arrived in Galveston, Texas, in 1865 to take control of the state and ensure that all enslaved people were freed. The troops' arrival came a full two and a half years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation.

The proclamation failed to instantly free any enslaved people. The proclamation applied only to places under Confederate control, rather than slave-holding border states or areas already under Union control. As Northern troops advanced into the Confederate South, many enslaved people fled to Union states. In Texas, slavery had continued unabated as the state remained untouched by large-scale fighting or significant presence of Union troops. Many enslavers from outside Texas had moved there, viewing it as a haven for slavery.

After the war ended in the spring of 1865, Gen. Gordon Granger's arrival in Galveston that June signaled freedom for Texas's 250,000 enslaved people. Although emancipation didn't happen overnight for everyone—in some cases, enslavers withheld that they had slaves until after the harvest season—celebrations broke out among newly freed Black people, which birthed the creation of Juneteenth. In December 1865, slavery in America was formally abolished with the adoption of the 13th Amendment.

In 1866, freedmen in Texas organized the first "Jubilee Day" celebration on June 19. The Juneteenth commemorations featured music, barbecues, prayer services and other activities in the ensuing decades. The Juneteenth tradition spread as Black people migrated from Texas to different parts of the country. In 1979, Texas became the first state to make Juneteenth an official holiday, and several others followed suit over the years. In June 2021, Congress passed a resolution establishing Juneteenth as a federal holiday, and President Joe Biden signed it into law on June 17, 2021.

Juneteenth and the abolition of slavery paved the way for numerous contributions by African Americans in various fields, including transit. Notable figures include Elbert E. Robinson, who received a patent for the electric railway trolley on Sept. 19, 1893. Robinson also devised the flanged railway car wheel, an interlocking switch and a track crossing, innovations that significantly advanced street railways and steam trunk lines. These advancements contributed to the achievements of William Thaddeus Coleman Jr., the first African American U.S. Supreme Court Clerk and later Secretary of Transportation from 1975 to 1977, U.S. Secretary of Transportation; and Rodney Slater, the first African American director of the Federal Highway Administration and U.S.Secretary of Transportation from 1997 to 2001.

Juneteenth is a time to reflect on the human right for freedom for all people and from a transit perspective, the progress in improving public transportation for all, particularly for Black customers and other historically marginalized communities.

Investing in infrastructure and expanding service coverage increases mobility and connectivity, essential for thriving, inclusive communities – which is part of RTD’s mission – Making lives better through connections. Public transportation fosters relationships, economic stability and personal fulfillment, helping everyone achieve a modern standard of living. Recognizing the transformative power of public transit, we must continue to build on progress and move toward a more equitable future.

Barriers to public transportation prevent people from accessing opportunities, which creates inequities and limits freedom, making universal access to mobility essential. Ensuring that public transportation reasonably serves all communities helps dismantle systemic barriers and promotes inclusivity and equity.

In observance of Juneteenth, RTD is sharing many ways people can recognize the holiday.

  • Listen to the sounds of Soul School at the Juneteenth Celebration and Summer Concert from 7 to 8:30 p.m. June 13 at the Harley Brown Amphitheater.
  • Participate in the Juneteenth Music Festival, noon to 8 p.m. June 15 and 16 in the Historic Five Points Neighborhood of Denver. The Welton Street corridor will transform into an immersive cultural treasure chest, hosting more than 200 vendors, including food trucks, merchants, and artisans. The Juneteenth Music Festival is family-friendly and boasts attractions such as an activated youth zone and block parties galore.
  • RTD will be marching in the Juneteenth Parade during the Juneteenth Music Festival at 11 a.m. June 15. We encourage the community to attend to celebrate this important day. Hear the jazz stylings of Purnell Steen and the Five Points Ambassadors to celebrate Father's Day and Juneteenth at 6 p.m. June 16 at Dazzle at the Denver Performing Arts Complex. The band has been dedicated to preserving and playing the jazz and blues music of Denver's legendary Five Points neighborhood and are regulars at Dazzle.
  • Satisfy your science curiosity during the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District Free Days and Free Nights on Juneteenth at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. June 19.
  • Participate in the Juneteenth Freedom Day celebration at Roots Music Project on June 19, starting at 6:30 p.m. in Boulder. This is a night of soul-stirring tunes and powerful performances celebrating freedom. Experience the talents of Rex Peoples and Xfactr, Jack Hadley, Wellington Bullings, Kid Astronaut, Zivanai Masango and Blessing Chimanga as we honor this historic milestone.
  • End the celebratory week with the Juneteenth Liberation Day Celebration with Out Boulder County from 5 to 8 p.m. June 20 at the Museum of Boulder, where the beauty of Black resilience, community and the expression of liberation for Queer and Trans People of Color (QTPOC) futures will be celebrated.

By celebrating Juneteenth and recognizing the role transportation plays in promoting equity, everyone can move closer to a society where freedom and opportunity are genuinely available.

By Gisa McCray Simmons