Can Juneteenth Save Us?



This month, as a nation, we will commemorate a significant anniversary of freedom. June 19th, Juneteenth 2015, will mark 150 years since our country abandoned the practice of enslaving African people, thus ending two centuries of forced migration, uncompensated labor, and a myriad of other ills and inequities that could only persist if all people are not free.

In light of what we have experienced in Baltimore since the death of Freddie Gray, I have been thinking about the potential and promise this particular Juneteenth could hold for healing our hurting city. We are still reeling, and it’s hard to know where to begin.

Members of the community hold hands in front of police officers in riot gear outside a recently looted and burned CVS store in Baltimore, Maryland, on April 28, 2015.  The day after rioters tore through Baltimore, the city's mayor was criticized on Tuesday for a slow police response to some of the worst U.S. urban unrest in years after the funeral of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man who died in police custody. Maryland Governor Larry Hogan said he had called Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake repeatedly Monday but that she held off calling in the National Guard until three hours after violence first erupted. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Jim Bourg

But, perhaps, Juneteenth, a time when we recognize the power of endurance and the triumph of the human spirit, could be the deep and refreshing well – an oasis from which we would draw the strength, courage, inspiration, and moral conscience from which to begin again. Beneath our latest city slogan, “One Baltimore,” I want to write this cautionary wisdom from Dr. Cornel West’s Hope on a Tightrope-“I am in no way optimistic, but I remain a prisoner of hope.”


Baltimore is a complex and diverse city – far too nuanced for the thin veneer of optimism. But, hope is something different. Hope is the force that will move our city to freedom and justice. Hope is the foundation for the civil rights movement that continues to this day. Hope persists because it is rooted in the very best expectations we have for ourselves. Hope prevails because it has the power to bring about whatever we are bold enough to envision.

This Juneteenth is an opportunity for all of us to re-imagine Baltimore – a Baltimore that is bold enough to tell its collective story with candor and new resolve. A Baltimore that will, in Dr. West’s words, “let suffering speak and let victims be visible.” 635658214997891665-EPA-USA-BALTIMORE-PROTEST-GRAY
And, a Baltimore that is hopeful enough to create a new narrative that will carry us forward together by “demanding that social misery be put on the agenda of those with power.”

At Caroline Center, where I work each day with incredibly strong and courageous women for whom we always have the very best expectations, there is a mural with quotations and inspiration – a lot of it gathered from the women who attend our program. One particular line of poetry speaks to me about the aspirations I have for our city and all who live here –

“And, my hope? My hope faces forward.”

Can Juneteenth save Baltimore?  That’s obviously too much to expect from one day on the calendar, but it could be a start – a day not only to face forward, but to begin moving forward.

juneteenth pull quote

Pat McLaughlin, SSND, is the executive director of Caroline Center and is this month’s guest contributor to The Breakroom. “Can Juneteenth Save Us?” was originally published in the Baltimore Suns “Maryland Voices” as a Commentary on June 13, 2015. The Commentary appears in the print edition of the newspaper under the title, “Juneteenth Can Provide a Start.”

The final art image in this blog post, “Together We Stand” by artist Anne Marie Williams, is in the collection of the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture in Baltimore.



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