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Long-Standing Juneteenth Celebrations In Billings Share Excitement For New Federal Holiday

Robert Brown and mother Ruth Curtis listen to music with family in South Park June 19th, 2021 in Billings Montana.
Taylar Stagner
Robert Brown (top left) and mother Ruth Curtis (bottom left) listen to music with family in South Park June 19th, 2021 in Billings Montana.

Juneteenth in Billings has been a tradition for decades. The 19th of June marks the day enslaved Black Americans in Texas learned slavery had ended, two years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed.

The holiday has become federally recognized a year after a Minneapolis police officer murdered George Floyd in 2020.

Over the weekend the Yellowstone Black Heritage Foundation held a Juneteenth celebration in Billings’ South Park. The festivities fed a couple hundred visitors and provided music from a local band.

Michelle Lucero-Terry with All Nations Church says she's lived in Montana all her life. She says she's been dealing with bigotry since her childhood because she’s Black.

Lucero-Terry says that people from here often forget Black people have a rich history in the state, such as Helena’s prominent African American population or the Black cowboys of the West.

“Everybody thinks if you don’t ride a horse and wear cowboy boots, you’re not a Montanan and that’s not true,” Lucero-Terry says. “We’ve had a lot of diversity here. We’ve had black people that were Cowboys and broke horses and rode the longhorns over here from Texas to Montana.”

She says she’s excited about Juneteenth being a federal holiday as of last week but knows there's still work to be done.

“A very long way to go. And I think until we really stop and put down our racist and prejudiced ideas it's never going to get any better,” Lucerro-Terry says.

Robert Brown is also one of the organizers for the event. He says his mother Ruth Curtis helped put together the Black history foundation’s Juneteenth celebrations back in the 90s.

“It's more to make them curious to get to know more about our history, why it is being celebrated,” Brown says. “And I’d say it would open up to talk about Tulsa, talk about Scottsboro, talk about Tuskegee.”

He says the national interest in Juneteenth helps put a spotlight on Black history in Montana.

The celebration came a few days after Montana's Republican Matt Rosendale announced his opposition to the proposed Juneteenth legislation in a press release in which he said “this is an effort by the Left to create a day out of whole cloth to celebrate identity politics as part of its larger efforts to make Critical Race Theory the reigning ideology of our country.”

Montana’s lone U.S Congressman was one of 14 Republican lawmakers last week who voted against establishing June 19th as a federal holiday.

The U.S. Senate unanimously passed the bill designating Juneteenth National Independence Day and Pres. Joe Biden signed the measure.

Forty-eight states, including Montana, and Washington, D.C., currently recognize Juneteenth as either a state or ceremonial holiday.

Taylar Stagner is Yellowstone Public Radio's Report for America Indigenous affairs reporter.