James Varner, president of the Maine Human Rights Coalition, stands and smiles next to the statue of a slave at the Chamberlain Freedom Park following a celebrating of Juneteenth in Brewer, June 18, 2021. Credit: Sawyer Loftus / The Penobscot Times

Maine’s first Juneteenth celebration since President Joe Biden declared the day as a federal holiday on June 17 was held Friday at Chamberlain Freedom Park in Brewer.

Juneteenth commemorates the date that Union soldiers arrived in Galveston, Texas, on June 19, 1865, and informed residents that slavery was outlawed two years earlier when President Abraham Lincoln signed the emancipation proclamation. On June 11, Gov. Janet Mills signed into law the recognition of Juneteenth as a state holiday, a week before it received federal recognition.

James Varner, president of the Maine Human Rights Coalition, speaks to a crowd of about 20, at the Chamberlain Freedom Park, celebrating Juneteenth a day early in Brewer on June 18, 2021. Credit: Sawyer Loftus

The celebration — held a day before June 19 — was led by James Varner, president of the Maine Human Rights Coalition and co-founder of the Greater Bangor NAACP, at the park that is a memorial to the Underground Railroad used to escape slavery in the South. Flanked by Brewer Mayor Michele Daniels and a crowd of about 20, Varner took time to explain the significance of making Juneteenth a federal holiday to the largely white crowd.

“I’m thankful and I hope you are feeling the joy and excitement this brother is feeling here today. And I know Dr. Martin Luther King is singing,” Varner said to the crowd. “I know he’s happy also.”

After a brief prayer led by the Rev. Joe Schulte of Hammond Street Congregational Church, Mayor Daniels read from a proclamation officially marking June 19 as Juneteenth Celebration Day in Brewer.

Brewer’s Mayor Michele Daniels reads to a crowd the city’s proclamation officially making June 19 the celebration of Juneteenth in the city at Chamberlain Freedom Park in Brewer, June 18, 2021. Credit: Sawyer Loftus / The Penobscot Times

Varner presented the mayor with a certificate of congratulations from the Maine Human Rights Coalition, recognizing Brewer’s commitment to the organization and Juneteenth.

While the coalition invited several elected officials from Maine to join the celebration, none attended. But a letter from Democratic Rep. Jared Golden, read by Varner, said that Juneteenth celebrates two fundamental promises: freedom and independence.

“In a couple of weeks, Americans will celebrate Independence Day, but we should never forget that the promise of freedom in the Declaration of Independence wasn’t for everyone,” the letter said.

Varner noted that, while the creation of the new federal holiday is progress, there is still a great deal of emotion and sadness because of a long history of atrocities perpetrated against Black Americans, even after slavery ended.

“Even today I cry because I have three sons, a daughter and 10 grandchildren. I know how hateful and heinous and mean some of our white brothers and sisters can be,” he said. “And I think this might happen to one of my children, so I still cry.”

Before the federalization of Juneteenth, 49 states and the District of Columbia recognized the significance of the day, although not all states marked the day as a state holiday.

To close out the ceremony, Varner asked the audience to put behind them the “business of skin” and join his team of love to help make the state and country a more just place.

“I can’t verbalize the warmth and love that I feel, touching your spirit with my spirit, your energy with my energy, your love with my love,” he said. “For the action, we are going to partake in, when we leave this place to spread this genius knowledge that all human beings are the same.”

Correction: An earlier version of this report misstated the year when Union troops marched into Galveston, Texas.

Sawyer Loftus is an investigative reporter at the Bangor Daily News. A graduate of the University of Vermont, Sawyer grew up in Vermont where he worked for Vermont Public Radio, The Burlington Free Press...