Video, pictures & speeches from an emotional Port Arthur Juneteenth celebration

Published 12:40 pm Friday, June 18, 2021

Tears fell in downtown Port Arthur Friday — tears of pain, tears of joy and tears of celebration.

“We are celebrating,” said Phyllis Charles as she sat with others under the shade behind the sub-courthouse for the Port Arthur Juneteenth Flag Raising Ceremony. “We eat, we play games, we just do great things. And we talk about the experiences that the older people — who many are gone now — passed down to us so that we pass it down to our children. And I’m so glad that there are kids here today because they need to hear those old things that have happened to our ancestors of the past.”

Juneteenth, or June 19, is an annual event recognizing the day in 1865 when military members arrived in Galveston to share the news that slavery had ended.

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“Texas was one of the farthest states back in the 1800s,” Charles said. “And the word didn’t get to us until June 19, 1865. So we were late. We had emancipation more than two years before Texas found out about it. So we celebrate.”

But this year, it was more than just recognition.

It was truly historical, as on Thursday President Joe Biden signed legislation making Juneteenth a federal holiday.

“It’s a lot of emotion for me today,” said Carolyn Thibodeaux of the African American Historical Society as she spoke to the crowd of community members and city leaders. “Because this is not a first. It’s not a first, raising this flag. It’s been a lot of striving and a lot of work to see this as a national holiday.”

Mayor Thurman Bartie also noted the significance as he read a proclamation solidifying the day.

“On this anniversary year African American Cultural Society leaders and individuals throughout the city and our nation celebrate, and might I add this newly declared holiday that’s now part of our heritage,” he said as he was met with applause from the crowd. “It’s part of our history, it’s part of our freedom and most certainly part of our culture.”

Gail Pelham, president of the African American Cultural Society, gave a moving speech from the steps of the building.

“Our fathers and mothers came here — lived, loved, struggled and built here,” she said. “At this place, their love and labor rolls like the sun, giving strength and meaning to the day. For them then who gave so much, we give in return. On this same soil, we will sow our seeds and move in strength and unity. May our eyes be the eagle, may our strength be the elephant and the boldness of our lives be like the lion.”