‘Juneteenth is American history,’ supporters say at Capitol rally

June 19, 2019 5:43 pm

Cleo MeriAbut Jarvis, of Pike County, Pa., speaks during a Capitol news conference marking the enactment of a statewide Juneteenth holiday in Pennsylvania (Capital-Star photo).

You don’t need to remind Cleo MeriAbut Jarvis that she’s standing on the shoulders of giants. She remembers it every day. The family, the friends, the civil rights pioneers who lifted her up to where she is now: a leader in her community, free to live as she chooses.

That’s a “testimony to the spirit of love,” Jarvis, of Pike County, said Wednesday, as she and other allies, supporters, and state lawmakers gathered in the Capitol rotunda to celebrate a landmark moment: Pennsylvania enshrining the holiday in state law.

“Juneteenth is American history. Say it with me, ‘Juneteenth is American history,'” Jarvis said as she exhorted the Capitol crowd to remember and honor the freeing, in Galveston, Texas, in 1865, of the last slaves in the United States.

The crowd didn’t need much prompting. They chanted it right back at her.

In a building where partisan squabbles have often threatened to overtake the public dialogue, it was a surprise to learn that state Rep. Sue Helm, a white Republican from Dauphin County, had spent the last nine years trying to usher the holiday into law.

As it turns out, Helm was doing what lawmakers are supposed to do: honoring the wishes of her constituents. And according to attendees Wednesday, that’s where her work on the holiday began.

The House unanimously approved the bill on May 6. The Senate’s unanimous approval followed on June 12, and Gov. Tom Wolf signed the bill into law.

Act 9 of 2019, which took effect Wednesday, permanently designates each June 19 as “Juneteenth National Freedom Day” in Pennsylvania.

For state Rep. Stephen Kinsey, an African-American Democrat whose Philadelphia district is a world away from Helm’s, his GOP colleague’s tenacity was admirable.

Helm “undertook this work two years before I got here,” in 2013, Kinsey said Wednesday. “I just want to say ‘thank you,” to not only her, but to all the folks who got here before us.” Their ranks, Kinsey noted, included the late state House Speaker K. Leroy Irvis, who is still the only black lawmaker to wield the gavel.

For state Rep. Chris Rabb, who is black, seeing the holiday become law is a victory. But it’s also a reminder of work to be done.

“To talk about freedom without talking about justice is an incomplete conversation,” Rabb, D-Philadelphia, said.

Lenwood Sloan, of the Commonwealth Monuments Project, offered a similar sentiment, saying the holiday is a chance for Pennsylvanians and Americans to reflect on the vigilance and diligence required to guarantee freedom.

It’s the diligence embodied by such black Pennsylvanians as Nicholas Biddle, of Pottstown, who braved hostile crowds in Baltimore, so he could travel to Washington, D.C. to protect the capital as the Civil War raged around the city.

It’s the diligence of a black carriage driver from Gettysburg who helped President Abraham Lincoln evade an 1861 assassination plot. Without him, there “may have been no ‘Party of Lincoln,'” Sloan observed.

“Why should Pennsylvania remember what happened in Galveston?” he asked, not entirely rhetorically. “Juneteenth is a blueprint for the diligence and vigilance of the next great battle” — protecting civil and voting rights in 2020.

In a final exhortation Wednesday, Helm told the crowd to organize Juneteenth celebrations in their own communities in 2020 and to “teach the young people we have to carry on our history.”

In a building rich with history, where victories, when they come, come slowly and are often hard won, it wasn’t a bad admonition.

Not bad at all.

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John L. Micek

A three-decade veteran of the news business, John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's former Editor-in-Chief.