San Mateo County and community leaders raised the Juneteenth flag Tuesday morning at the County Center in Redwood City to kick off a month of celebration, awareness, and events around the holiday.

The county Board of Supervisors at its May 23 meeting recognized June 19, 2023, as Juneteenth, a federal holiday commemorating the emancipation of enslaved African Americans, in San Mateo County.

County Supervisor Noelia Corzo, who sits on the county’s Juneteenth Advisory Committee, encouraged people to discuss the relevance of the holiday in the nation’s history.

“I invite you to talk to your kids and any young person in your lives about Juneteenth and why it is so important,” Corzo said. “Please take the time to do that.”

Vocalist Q. Smith sang “Lift Every Voice and Sing” before various presenters took the stage. Often referred to as “The Black National Anthem,” it is a hymn written as a poem by James Weldon Johnson, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) leader in 1900.

Vocalist Q. Smith performs “Lift Every Voice and Sing” during San Mateo County’s Juneteenth Flag raising ceremony on Tuesday. (County of San Mateo via Bay City News)

Breaking down barriers

The Rev. Lorrie Carter Owens, San Mateo branch president of the NAACP, emphasized the need to get rid of barriers that keep people fighting amongst each other.

“I want to challenge each and every one of us to look not as much at the physical shackles, but at the mental shackles,” Owens said. “Those shackles that tell us that the person that is next to us, that is a different color or from a different ethnic background or a different religious background or a different gender orientation or sexual orientation or different abilities, that those people are different, that they are not worthy of our respect, they are not worthy of dignity, they are not worthy of the same American dream that some people feel that is only for them. Those are mental shackles that keep us bound not only as people but as a nation.”

Spoken word artist Jacob Virges took a moment to recognize the Black graduates from the Sequoia Union High School District and performed two pieces.

“Even though the bondage on our bodies are clearly broken. As a people, we all will not be free until our minds have been awoken,” he said as part of his piece, “Define Freedom.”

Spoken word artist Jacob Virges performed two pieces during Tuesday’s Juneteenth event in Redwood City. “Even though the bondage on our bodies are clearly broken. As a people, we all will not be free until our minds have been awoken,” he said in one of his works, “Define Freedom.” (County of San Mateo via Bay City News)

Dana Johnson, community activist, co-chair of the San Mateo County Pride Initiative and LGBTQ commissioner and a board member for CoastPride Center in Half Moon Bay, thanked the supervisors for the proclamation and acknowledgment of Juneteenth but also mentioned that there is more to do.

The month of June is special to them, said Johnson, who uses the pronouns they/them/theirs, as it intersects with Pride Month in the celebration of Juneteenth and they were thankful for the opportunity to embrace their intersectional identities.

“To fully enhance social justice and inclusion work, you must acknowledge the complex relationships between levels of oppression that we experience simultaneously,” Johnson said, speaking on what intersectionality and belonging mean for them.

‘Lives of consequence and change’

Jennifer Taylor Mendoza, president of the College of San Mateo, highlighted that as an institution of higher learning, the school affirms human rights and the rights of all its students to determine their future and achieve economic, political, social and educational equity.

“Our Black students need to know that we value them, that we see them, and that our institution is a safe place for exploration and freedom of thought,” Mendoza said. “Our students, all of them, need to know that their Indigenous lives, their Latinx lives, their Pacific Islander lives, LGBTQ lives are all lives of consequence and change, regardless of the circumstance or political vicissitudes of our time.”

The leaders then joined in to raise the Juneteenth flag with the audience applauding. Concluding the event, Kalimah Salahuddin, Jefferson Union High School District board trustee and co-founder of Real Equity and Access for Community Health Coalition, spoke through tears about her grandparents who left Texas in fear and hope for the future.

“Look at what we’ve accomplished through the tremendous, tremendous barrier and adversity. Look at what we’ve done and look what we continue to do,” Salahuddin said. “So, it gets hard. But I call on all of us to continue to say the things and to challenge the norms and to push back, because that is what my grandmother came here for, and that is what all our ancestors put us here for.”

Prachi is a Dow Jones News Fund intern at Bay City News. She is a journalism graduate from University of Southern California. She previously worked at Annenberg Media as a Multimedia Journalist and the Managing Editor. Prachi has covered social justice, climate and human interest stories. She is interested in written and visual storytelling.