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Juneteenth: Celebrating Freedom While Incarcerated

June 28, 2023

By Emily Boone Communications Office
Incarcerated individuals writing notes on a cutout of Sandy Williams at Airway Heights Corrections Center’s Juneteenth Celebration

Incarcerated individuals writing notes on a cutout of Sandy Williams at Airway Heights Corrections Center’s Juneteenth Celebration (Photo courtesy of Lukas D’Ambrosio, DOC Communications)

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Each year on June 19, Americans have the opportunity to celebrate Juneteenth – a time to commemorate the freedom of African Americans with the ending of chattel slavery in 1865 in the United States. Juneteenth offers us the chance to celebrate the progress we have made as a country while also reflecting on the ongoing struggle to achieve true equity for Black Americans.

For incarcerated individuals, Juneteenth symbolizes a season for renewal and a continued fight for liberation. Juneteenth allows them to recount the events of the past and encourage continuous self-development and respect for all cultures.

At corrections facilities across Washington State, incarcerated individuals worked together with the Department of Corrections (DOC) staff to plan Juneteenth and Black History events to honor the anniversary of the freedom of all enslaved people.

“It’s important for us to have these events to pass on our traditions and teach future generations about the past and what we can do better moving forward,” said Andre Parker, an incarcerated individual at Airway Heights Corrections Center (AHCC), and the Master of Ceremony at AHCC’s 2023 Juneteenth Celebration. “Juneteenth is an important holiday for all of America. It’s a celebration for all races because like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, injustice for one of us is injustice for all of us.”

AHCC held its Juneteenth celebration on Thursday, June 15, where more than 80 residents, staff, guests and loved ones gathered for a full agenda. Parker started the celebration with a welcome message and a libations ceremony, a ritual that is performed to honor ancestors by pouring liquid onto the earth. The gospel band Sounds of Experience, comprised of incarcerated individuals, performed several musical selections throughout the day and two incarcerated individuals performed an original rap. Attendees enjoyed a special menu selected by the event committee, which included culturally significant foods.

There was also a commemoration of Sandy Williams, a well-known Spokane civil rights activist who was a leader in Eastern Washington’s Black media landscape and an advocate for those at AHCC. Freedom Project East, a grassroots project supporting Black, indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) communities in Eastern Washington and Spokane, donated t-shirts in memory of Williams that incarcerated individuals and their guests wore and kept, and incarcerated individuals wrote notes of hope and inspiration on a life-size cutout of Williams.

The capstone of the day was guest speaker Dr. Scott Finnie, a professor at Eastern Washington University. Dr. Finnie spoke about the history of slavery and Juneteenth, and Juneteenth in modern times.

“It starts with all of us as brothers and sisters of all ethnicities to come together and realize that June 19 is our country’s final day of liberation not just for Galveston, Texas, but for every human being born in this country,” said Dr. Finnie. “How about we make June 19 an American point and landmark in history? How about we acknowledge and authenticate the suffering and turmoil and the long cast overshadow of slavery and what it has done to the African American population of this country? How about, as a country, we rise up and realize June 19, 1865, was finally at least a speck of removing justice delayed is justice denied.”

Dr. Finnie spoke about the impact that education, wealth and opportunity have on people of color in America. His motivational message spoke to the need for social and racial justice in our country.

“America has defaulted on its promissory note insofar as the citizens of color are concerned. America has given its colored people a ‘bad check’ – a check that has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’ But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt,” said Dr. Finnie. “We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. We have come to cash this check. And every June 19, may we also say we are here to cash a check – a check that will give us the riches of freedom and security of justice.”

Dr. Finnie closed with a sense of urgency, “Now is the time to make the real promise of democracy. Now is the time to rise through the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of social and racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid ground of brotherhood.”

Juneteenth and Black History events were also held throughout June at other WADOC facilities, including Clallam Bay, Cedar Creek, Coyote Ridge, Larch, Washington Corrections Center, Washington Corrections Center for Women and the Washington State Penitentiary. In our continued work to create an equitable environment for those in our custody and care, it’s vital to have events like this for incarcerated individuals to be able to carry on cultural traditions and celebrations.