Joe Powdrell has been celebrating Juneteenth almost his entire life.
As a child growing up in Texas, Powdrell, now the owner of Mr. Powdrell’s BBQ in Albuquerque, listened to stories explaining the significance of the date and learned about the brutal history that preceded it.
In fact, as a 23-year-old soldier in the Vietnam War, Powdrell faced punishment for organizing a small celebration of the holiday, which commemorates the end of slavery.
For 73-year-old Powdrell, June 19 extends beyond barbecues and civic events and instead represents a time for the Black community to connect to each other and themselves.
“I had to explain to my commanding officer that this is not a riot,” he said about his experience organizing a Juneteenth celebration in Vietnam. “This is a sharing of historical experience, spiritual experience that people who are descendants of slavery have in common.”
Powdrell, the founder of Albuquerque’s first Juneteenth celebration in 1976, said that while the holiday is now surrounded by fanfare, it still represents a time for the Black community to own and tell their story.
Celebrated on June 19 for the past 136 years, Juneteenth marks the day the last group of enslaved people in Texas learned that slavery had been abolished. As of this week, it’s also the newest federal holiday. President Joe Biden signed legislation Thursday recognizing Juneteenth as a federal holiday.
In honor of the day, various celebrations are being held across the state this weekend, including a three-day event held at Civic Plaza in Albuquerque.
But in the midst of celebrations, Cathryn McGill, founder of the New Mexico Black Leadership Council, said the holiday is still a time to reflect on the past and work toward the continuous pursuit of freedom.
She said the passing of the legislation is an acknowledgement and a step in the right direction, but more work needs to be done at the national and state levels.
“We don’t want to be in a situation where we forget how long it took to get to where we are right now, who brought us here. We stand on the shoulders of our ancestors,” McGill said. “And also the fact that many of the issues we face are still here in spite of the fact that we have an MLK day.”
Marsha Hardeman, a University of New Mexico professor who helped organize the first Juneteenth celebrations in Albuquerque, said she is glad to know that more people are now learning about the holiday and that she hopes the acknowledgment of the holiday at the federal level will continue to bring people together.
“As hard as the last four years have been, where there seems to have been such energy spent on divisiveness and division, we are so much better off when we can put that aside and come together to celebrate one another,” she said.
Powdrell said while the holiday has grown since he first organized Albuquerque’s celebration in the ’70s, he worries about the motives behind designating Juneteenth as a federal holiday.
“I don’t like us celebrating something for … years and then they come in and say, ‘Hey, we’re going to make this a national holiday,’ ” he said. “It’s already national.”
Powdrell said that with the nationalization of the holiday, he worries the Black community will step away from organizing and teaching each other about the true meaning of the date and that the difficult conversations surrounding the brutality of slavery won’t be discussed.
“If you explain the Emancipation Proclamation you have to talk about slavery. If you talk about slavery, you had to talk about women getting raped, people getting killed,” he said. “… So as a child I’m getting a history lesson, I’m getting a spiritual lesson about how you stand up, how you embrace what is right and proper about life not only for yourself but you understand that other people have the same right that you have, the same responsibility that you have.”