“Lift Every Voice and Sing,” the hymn referred to as the Black National Anthem, was the rousing gathering song for the inaugural Juneteenth Mass for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington on June 19. Its lyrics celebrating liberty, hope and faith after a dark , bloody past gave an apt framing for the Mass at St. Joseph Church in Largo, Maryland.
The mostly full church, with a predominantly black congregation, was a joyful community, with many worshipers wearing colorful outfits, with some whole families in bright, matching fabrics.
Washington Auxiliary Bishop Roy Campbell Jr, the pastor of St. Joseph Parish and the president of the National Black Catholic Congress, celebrated the Mass. In his homily, he summarized the origins of the observance, which was first celebrated by freedmen in Texas in 1866, but only recognized nationwide as a federal holiday in 2021. The date marks June 19, 1865, when federal troops arrived in Galveston, Texas , to take control of the state and ensure that enslaved people were freed, two and a half years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. A year later, the first Jubilee Day, as it was initially known, was observed. Commemorations of the date gradually spread across Texas and around the country as Black Texans migrated to other regions.
“Today is America’s second Independence Day,” Bishop Campbell said. “Juneteenth is truly a celebration of freedom, resilience and hope.”
However, Bishop Campbell questioned, “were Black people in the United States finally free of ‘enslavement?’ Or has slavery morphed into other forms of hatred, to fit the times in which it is found?” He noted that 56 years after Juneteenth, a white mob burned to the ground Greenwood, the prosperous Black section of Tulsa, Oklahoma. “We see racism, discrimination and enslavement of people’s rights to ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’ still exists to this day,” the bishop said.
But, “acts of terrorism will not shake the spirit of Black Americans,” he continued. “We only have to look at the civil rights movement and struggles of the past 70 years to see that the spirit of Black America is alive and determined.”
Bishop Campbell noted that the day also marked Father’s Day and the Feast of Corpus Christi, making the combination an apt observance of “a day of hope, knowing that our faith, sustained by the Body and Blood of Jesus, will give us the strength to persevere, to thrive, to love everyone, as Jesus loves us.”
He concluded his homily with another lyric, from Gospel singer James Cleveland. “I don’t feel noways tired; I’ve come too far from where I started from. Nobody told me that the road would be easy. I don’t believe that he brought me this far to leave me.”
Other observances of Juneteenth in the archdiocese included the dedication of a newly installed memorial for the enslaved at the parish cemetery of St. Mary of the Mills Parish in Laurel, Maryland.
Earlier, Cardin Wilton Gregory had encouraged pastors to be mindful of the new holiday and consider offering opportunities to celebrate the observance.