Each year African Americans celebrate Juneteenth - the name for the monumental day of June 19, 1895 when United States General Gordon Granger and his Union soldiers traveled to Galveston, Texas to tell the last group of enslaved persons that they were free. The Emancipation Proclamation had been signed and issued by President Lincoln on January 1, 1863, but the news wasn’t delivered to the slaves in Texas until two and a half years later on June 19, 1895. This landmark event marked the conclusion of slavery in the United States.
On January 1, 1980, Juneteenth became an official Texas state holiday through the efforts of Al Edwards, an African American state legislator. The successful passage of this bill marked Juneteenth as the first emancipation celebration granted official state recognition. Edwards has since actively sought to spread the observance of Juneteenth all across America. Juneteenth remains the oldest known celebration commencing the ending of slavery in the United States. Annual celebrations around the nation reflect on African American freedom, pride and achievement and are a source of inspiration and hope. They also encourage continuous self-development and respect for all cultures.
On June 19, 2015, County of San Diego employees from the African American Association of County Employees (AAACE) celebrated the 150th Anniversary of Juneteenth at the County Operations Center. This year’s national Juneteenth theme - Building Upon Our History, Creating a Brighter Future - was a call to action for AAACE. The Employee Resource Group chose to commemorate the sesquicentennial celebration by bringing together San Diego County executive trailblazers Leon Williams and Cecil Steppe and current County executives Marie Brown-Mercadel and Mack Jenkins - connections to the past and future.
Steppe retired from the County after serving for 35 years in key roles as the Director of Community Initiatives for the Health and Human Services Agency (HHSA), Director of the Department of Social Services and Chief Probation Officer. Combining his varied background and skills, he met the needs of youth and families across the San Diego region.
After retiring from the County, Steppe served as the President and CEO of the Urban League of San Diego County and as the Board Chair of the Gompers Preparatory Academy, a conversion charter school serving students from the 6th through the 12th grades. Among his awards and achievements is recognition within the “San Diego Songs of My People: 100 African American Role Models.”
Steppe’s dedication to his profession is underscored by his involvement not only with the San Diego Community, but also at the state and national levels. He currently serves on the Vista Hills Board, Project Save our Children and Sharp Memorial Hospital Board.
Like Steppe, Williams is a trailblazer in local government. He was the City of San Diego’s first African-American Councilman and the first African-American elected to the County of San Diego Board of Supervisors. The former County Supervisor was an early advocate of needle-exchange programs to combat AIDS, freeway call boxes, and tougher smoking laws. He pushed for community policing, smart growth and better transit options. Williams helped create the public defender’s office and the Southeast Economic Development Corporation. Williams now serves as Chairman of the Board of Directors for the San Diego Metropolitan Transit Development Board. He hosted a didactic panel at the event.
On the road to success, Williams and Steppe faced discrimination and significant challenges in their personal and professional lives. Yet they endured - not only for themselves but for others - becoming inspirational leaders and cementing local and regional legacies. They stand for courage, integrity, hard work, value of community, diversity and inclusion and respect for one’s self and others.
During the event, County Chief Administrative Officer, Helen Robbins-Meyer, recognized Steppe for his past and current work within the community as a testament to what is needed so “all can live well.” Robbins-Meyer also recognized Williams for blazing paths that have enabled others to realize their personal and professional dreams be where we are today.
“Both men’s efforts and ideals have a lasting legacy in San Diego and the region,” said Robbins-Meyer.
Steppe and Williams have helped pave a path for current leaders including Marie Brown-Mercadel, Director of Regional Operations for HHSA, and Mack Jenkins, Chief Probation Officer.
At the event, Jenkins presented three lessons from the past to serve as reminders to take personal responsibility for our personal and professional development. Brown-Mercadel remarked on being a woman in leadership and challenged attendees to follow their passions.
“Are you psychologically emancipated?,” questioned Brown-Mercadel as a reminder to personally strive to reach our highest potential. Read Brown-Mercadel’s inspiring speech here.
This year’s program also included:
The event was meaningful.
“The Juneteenth event was beautifully inspiring, especially seeing Black men who have done amazing things for our community be honored in such a way. It made me proud to be a member of AAACE and even more proud to be a Black woman,” gushed Chakecia Rhone from the Auditor and Controller office.
The Juneteenth celebration increased people’s knowledge about the historical event and its impact on African American culture. It also brought an enhanced awareness of how current San Diego community members and County leadership have contributed to such a rich history.
Are there any trailblazers and living legends in your community? Don’t wait for a special holiday to celebrate their contributions. Honor their legacy and tell their stories with social media posts, YouTube videos, poetry, paintings and more.
Juneteenth is celebrated each year. AAACE will be back in 2016 for another Juneteenth celebration. Mark your calendar!