Happy Juneteenth!

In 2021, Juneteenth was designated a federally observed holiday. And this year, on June 19th, Juneteenth will officially be recognized as an Oregon state holiday.

Juneteenth celebrates the abolishment of African American slavery in the United States. But attaining that freedom was not as simple as President Lincoln signing the Emancipation Proclamation in 1862. Even after the Union won the last battle of the Civil War on April 9, 1865, plantation owners withheld the news and continued enslaving legally free people until Union troops enforced the law. The state of Texas was the last holdout as a criminal haven for slavers.

On June 19th, 1865, the Union army arrived in Galveston and seized control of Texas, proclaiming the end of slavery for the quarter million African Americans living in the state. The next year, on June 19, emancipated citizens celebrated this day of freedom, initially called “Jubilee Day” but which soon became known as Juneteenth, an annual holiday celebrated within Black communities all across the country. With the exception of Oregon, that is. Here, the Juneteenth holiday remained virtually unknown into the 1940s. Clara Peoples devoted much time and energy to change that fact.

Mural of Clara Peoples

Clara Peoples, from the Women Making History in Portland mural on N Russell and N Interstate in Portland, OR.

Clara Mae Peoples was born in Muskogee, Oklahoma in 1926. At age 16, she was attending college in Pittsburgh, studying to become a music teacher. But World War II interrupted her collegiate pursuits and she moved to Oregon and found work in the Kaiser shipyards and canneries of Vanport, an area of North Portland where most African Americans were housed.

Clara asked her shipyard coworkers about Juneteenth celebrations and was surprised to learn that most had never heard of the holiday. So she arranged for a small event during their 15-minute work break. This humble, impromptu gathering is now considered Oregon’s first Juneteenth celebration. Peoples’ drive for Juneteenth to grow was powerful, and she championed and persisted in keeping this important holiday at the forefront.

In 1948, disaster struck when Vanport was destroyed by a devastating flood. Clara Peoples relocated to Northeast Portland, a neighborhood where many other Black Vanport residents were forced to move, due to Portland’s redlining practices. Clara recognized the dire needs of her community, especially the lack of food and health care for Black residents. She started a food bank, and in 1969, Peoples officially founded the Community Care Association. She worked with local farmers who donated their “second crop” surplus of fresh fruits, vegetables, even fish and dairy products. Peoples and her team of volunteers worked tirelessly to can and distribute these goods to families in need. The organization also provided clothing and helped community members find jobs.

Also in 1969, Peoples was elected to the Portland Model Cities Board, through which she obtained significant grants for the Community Care Association. She also served as the first African-American on the State Board of Agriculture. In 1970, Clara was honored as one of Portland’s “Ten Women of Accomplishment.”

Clara Peoples organized Portland’s first citywide Juneteenth celebration in 1972, which continues annually. Her dedication to carrying out this tradition earned her the title, “Mother of Juneteenth,” by mayoral proclamation in 2011. Throughout her life, she continued to lobby to make Juneteenth an official state and national holiday. Peoples passed away in 2015 and her granddaughter, Jenelle Jack, is now the Director of Juneteenth Oregon. In 2019, the Juneteenth parade was named the Clara Peoples Freedom Trail parade.

Clara Peoples’ devotion to serving others and her ability to effect change on such a large scale is an inspiration.  In a complicated world, we are reminded that working to fulfill the most basic needs can be the most profound.

“Food is the first step to freedom.” – Clara Peoples, Jackson Independent, March 15, 1973

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