Growing up in Las Vegas, Kevin Wright just assumed that Juneteenth was celebrated across the country. Then he went away to college in 2010, spending the next eight years living in Flagstaff, Arizona; Portland, Oregon; Cincinnati; Indianapolis; and Burlington, Vermont where he pursued his bachelor’s degree, master’s degree, and career in higher education.
Over the next decade, Wright said, he learned that the holiday celebrating the end of slavery in the United States, was not embraced everywhere. "During the 10 years that I was gone, I would always ask people like, ‘Hey, what's going on for Juneteenth?’ and I would either get the question. 'What is that?' Or I would always get the response, 'We don't do anything for Juneteenth,” said Wright, who is now the Black/African American Program Coordinator and the interim assistant director in the Office of Student Diversity & Social Justice.
“I found that to be very disheartening because I realized that growing up in Vegas was a privilege within itself. For as long as I can remember all we've always seen Vegas do something to recognize Juneteenth as it impacts the black community."
Juneteenth commemorates the in 1865, when Gen. Gordon Granger read General Order No. 3 — informing the people of Texas that all formerly enslaved people were now afforded equal personal and property rights — in Galveston, more than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation. Granger and his 2,000 Union troops arrive on Galveston Island, one of the most remote locations of the Confederacy, until June 18.
Celebrations started in Texas and spread across the South, but it wasn't always widely known in every community.
“One of the biggest pillars of Juneteenth is celebrating history and not just the history of Juneteenth but the history of black people because black history is American history,” Wright noted.
His family, who came to Las Vegas from New Orleans in the 1970s, brought the observance with them in an era when Juneteenth was gaining wider recognition nationally.
"Everyone around me knew what Juneteenth was. And if you didn't, we made sure that you knew of it after you met us," Wright said. "We would go to the park and just chill. We would play 'Lift Every Voice and Sing' at least once every hour. My family never lost sight of making sure that everyone was aware of their history.
“The elders of my family would always gather us little ones and just tell us stories of what life was like when we first migrated to Las Vegas. And how, what we now know as the Strip today, was the original color line. If you were on the west side you were black; if you were on the east side you were white."
Growing up in North Carolina Claytee White, director of the Oral History Research Center for UNLV Libraries and who helped usher in the Libraries' Documenting the African American Experience in Las Vegas project, didn't know about the holiday herself until she moved west in the '70s.
"I heard about it from my friend from Texas who lived in Los Angeles," she said. "That's how I got word. People who lived in Texas have celebrated it for years. I'm sure they, and people coming from Louisiana, probably came [to Las Vegas] with a knowledge of Juneteenth already."
For the last few years, she's attended events at the West Las Vegas Arts Center and citywide. The Las Vegas Juneteenth Foundation was set to hold its 20th annual event with music, food, and art before the virus interrupted daily life.
This year would have seen organized celebrations at UNLV, including a march with members of the Las Vegas Tribe of Paiute Indians to commemorate historically the interconnected relationship between the black and indigenous communities in the area.
Instead, this year's Juneteenth will be marked on campus by a video posted to Student Diversity & Social Justice's channels, looking at the history and significance of the holiday, examining the Juneteenth flag and celebrations, and placing it all in context of the recent wave of protests and the Black Lives Matter movement.
For White, the protests and a growing awareness of Juneteenth are entwined.
"It means that we are learning our history," she said. "It means that we are finally embracing a history of America that is inclusive and has eluded us all this time. This is really perfect timing. It is finally showing what white supremacy is and what it has done and what it has become. People are beginning to look at institutional racism like they've never looked at it before."