James Varner, left, who organizes the annual Juneteenth celebration in Brewer that commemorates the end of slavery in the United States, talks in this 2017 file photo to Kevin O'Connell, Brewer's mayor at the time. Credit: Nok-Noi Ricker / BDN

A small group of people met Friday morning in Chamberlain Freedom Park to commemorate the Juneteenth holiday, which marks the anniversary of the end of slavery in the United States.

The annual event, normally a small and quick gathering, was not open to the public because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, but it drew local city officials and civil rights leaders who saw the celebration as a good way to speak out in support of renewed efforts to fight racism throughout the country.

The relatively minor Juneteenth holiday has attracted significantly increased nationwide attention this year as recent killings of Black people by police — including George Floyd in Minneapolis and Breonna Taylor in Louisville — and resulting protests have gripped the country. A political rally being held Friday by President Donald Trump in Tulsa, where in 1921 white people targeted and destroyed the mostly Black neighborhood of Greenwood, also has heightened interest in the annual commemoration.

Friday’s Juneteenth celebrations in Brewer and other cities in Maine come weeks after many Maine cities like Bangor, Portland, Augusta and Rockland have drawn large crowds at protests supporting the Black Lives Matter movement.

Old Town resident James Varner, executive director of Maine Human Rights Coalition, led the Brewer event, which was attended by Brewer Mayor Jerry Goss and other city officials. The celebration was held at the downtown park, located at the corner of Main and State streets, because it is home to the only official monument in Maine honoring the Underground Railroad, which was a network of secret tunnels, sympathizers and escape routes used by African Americans before the end of the Civil War to flee north away from slavery.

“You are encouraged to celebrate at home and think of the new movement the murder of George Floyd has given life to, not only in American but across the whole world,” Varner said in a statement. “Black people are being freed from mistreatment by the U.S. government and [are] being murdered and mistreated by police. Black people are the victims of a broken justice system that fines and sends hundreds of innocent black people to prison.”

The holiday is held on the anniversary of June 19, 1865, when Union soldiers arrived in Galveston, Texas and told residents that slavery had been abolished — two years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emanicipation Proclamation during the Civil War.

In 1866, Texas saw the first official Juneteenth celebrations, and they soon spread to other states.

Goss and Bangor Mayor Clare Davitt released proclamations Friday declaring June 19, 2020 as a holiday to “honor African American history and encourage all community members to reflect on how each of us can promote equality, liberty and justice for all people.”

Bill Trotter

A news reporter in coastal Maine for more than 20 years, Bill Trotter writes about how the Atlantic Ocean and the state's iconic coastline help to shape the lives of coastal Maine residents and visitors....