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Rochester celebrates Juneteenth as it becomes a federally recognized holiday

Rashad Smith speaks to crowd of bicyclist during a Roc Freedom Riders event in July 2020.
April Franklin
Rashad Smith speaks to crowd of bicyclist during a Roc Freedom Riders event in July 2020.

People gearing up for Juneteenth this weekend will have more reason to celebrate. On Wednesday, both houses passed a bill to make June 19 a federal holiday — Juneteenth National Independence Day. It was signed into law by President Joe Biden on Thursday.

Originating in Galveston, Texas, the holiday commemorates the emancipation of those who had been enslaved in the United States.

The social unrest of 2020 garnered new interests and a surge of Juneteenth celebrations around the country. Federal legislation to establish Juneteenth as holiday dates back as far as 1996, but has failed until now. A number of states have recognized Juneteenth for decades; it became a public holiday in New York State last fall. 

Organizers gearing up for local festivities say making Juneteenth a federal holiday is a start, but they want the event to inspire equitable changes to black communities.

Simeon Banister, the president of the local Martin Luther King Jr. Commission, said having Juneteenth as a federal holiday shows progress, but he thinks the government should focus on laws that would substantially improve the lives of Black and brown Americans.

"We haven’t passed the anti-lynching bill," said Banister. “Washington D.C. still hasn’t achieved its statehood. We still don’t have legislation that protects black people from violent police encounters.”

He said the government should also work on investing in Black communities.

Rashad Smith, co-founder of Roc Freedom Riders, agrees. Smith established the group with co-founder Devin Anglin Juneteenth 2020. The group leads community bike rides with the goal to bring awareness and support to local Black businesses and organizations. Smith said this year, Roc Freedom Riders are challenging organizations to host events that are educational and meaningful.

"Don’t just have a holiday social. Get together and talk with your employees and staff about what you can invest in, (Black communities) and how you can continue to make impact," said Smith, adding that business and organizational leaders should use the holiday to examine their practices and discuss ways to improve diversity.

Banister said Juneteenth represents the day the U.S. government finally submitted to a commitment made to enslaved people. 

“When Gordon Granger came riding into Galveston Texas, that’s what we saw. The institution the federal government following through on its promise,” said Banister.

Rochester Area Juneteenth celebrations

  • Irondequoit Juneteenth celebration, 6 p.m., Fri., June 18.

The town of Irondequoit and the Irondequoit Commission Advancing Racial Equality will host a free Juneteenth event at the Town Hall campus, 1280 Titus Ave. It will feature a performance by Womba Africa Drumming — speeches, crafts and food trucks. For more information visit the town’s website,

  • The Strong Museum and Greater Rochester Martin Luther King. Jr. Commission celebrate Juneteenth, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., Sat., June 19. 

Performances and activities promoting and honoring Black history and culture, and a chance to learn about Black-owned businesses in the community, plus an outdoor ROC Freedom Riders Zone. The Strong and Rochester Area Community Foundation are offering free admission and parking to the museum. 

  • Roc Freedom Riders annual Juneteenth bike ride, 10 a.m, Sat., June 19. 

The ride starts at Howell Street near The Strong National Museum of Play and end at the museum around 12:30 p.m. The event is free, but participants are encouraged to make donations Free parking will be available in the Washington Square Garage, 111 Woodbury Blvd.

  • Genesee Country Village & Museum. 10 a.m. to 4 p.m, Sat., June 19

An opportunity to interpret the community and lives of Black Americans living in western New York at the time of emancipation. Pre-registration is not required, but tickets are limited and will be available online and day-of at the door, until the event is sold out. You can Purchase tickets here.

  • Juneteenth mother-daughter walk, 10 a.m. to 11:30 a.m.,  Sat., June 19 

The walk begins  the Maplewood Park playground, 107 Bridge View Drive. The walk is being presented by Beautifully Made and Sankofa Family Counseling. For more, go to

  • Juneteenth celebration and teen poetry slam, 6 p.m., Sat., June 19

The event is at the Highland Bowl, 1137 South Ave., where 15 contestants will compete for cash prizes. The event is free. Presented by Save Rochester — Black Lives Matter. For more information, visit the Save Rochester Facebook page.

  • The 2021 Roc Juneteenth 5K run/walk, 1 p.m., Sat., June 19

The event starts at Genesee Valley Park, 1000 E. River Road, Rochester. The cost is $25 ($30 the day of) plus a $3.25 fee. There also is a virtual 5K option. Money raised by the event will help fund construction of Rochester’s Historic Civil Rights Heritage Site at Baden Park, which will honor local civil rights leaders. Register at

April Franklin is an occasional local host of WXXI's Weekend Edition.