For the first time, town offices around the state of Maine will close Monday in observance of Juneteenth, a holiday celebrating the end of slavery.

“Juneteenth shows us that even that the end of racial slavery was a process, that it unfolded over time, and it looked different in different places,” said Brian Purnell, an associate professor of Africana studies and history at Bowdoin College. “We are always working to improve upon our freedom, and Juneteenth crystallizes that.”

Juneteenth, which became both a federal and state holiday last year, celebrates the anniversary of federal troops’ arrival in Galveston, Texas, on June 19, 1865 to ensure all enslaved people had been freed. That day came nearly two-and-a-half years after President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, which nominally freed all enslaved people in the Confederacy but failed to reach some parts of the country for months or years.

Black Americans have celebrated the once-regional holiday for generations, according to Mary Freeman, an assistant professor of New England history at University of Maine. But until recently, most white Americans have associated emancipation with Lincoln’s 1863 proclamation and the Civil War with battle trivia.

“There has been historically not as much attention to the causes of the war and the consequences of the war, which would be slavery and emancipation,” she said. “The great thing about Juneteenth is that it’s tied to the central event in American history, the Civil War, and it’s emphasizing the central part of that central event, which was the struggle over slavery and emancipation.”

As the nation reckoned with its troubling history of racial violence and inequality in the wake of events like the Unite the Right white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, activists pushed governments and employers to recognize Juneteenth, Freeman said.


Gov. Janet Mills signed a law last June that made Maine one of 18 states that recognize June 19 as a paid state holiday, according to the Congressional Research Service. Of those states, 16 began recognizing Juneteenth as a paid holiday in 2021 or later.

While municipal offices will close Monday to observe the Sunday holiday, a number of local events will give attendees a chance to celebrate and learn about the struggle to end slavery.

Wiscasset will host an informal BYO picnic on the town’s common from 1-3 p.m. on Sunday, which will feature music and storytelling.

The state’s Permanent Commission on the Status of Racial, Indigenous, and Tribal Populations has organized three days of events celebrating Juneteenth weekend and Maine’s first observance of James Weldon Johnson Day, which commemorates the prolific writer, musician and civil rights leader who died in a train accident while visiting Wiscasset in 1938.

The James Weldon Johnson Day commemoration events will begin Friday at St. Philip’s Episcopal Church in Wiscasset at 10:30 a.m., before the Maine Maritime Museum hosts a panel discussion on “Recovering Maine’s Black History” Saturday at 1 p.m. Westbrook’s Riverbank Park will be home to a Juneteenth celebration featuring speakers, art and music Sunday at 1 p.m.

The holiday offers an important opportunity for Mainers to learn about the state’s own checkered history with race, according to Freeman. She cited Maine’s participation in the slave economy in the 17th and 18th centuries, its complicity in the Missouri Compromise, which helped slavery to expand into the Southwest, and its poor treatment of black, indigenous, and mixed-race people, including forcibly driving citizens off Malaga Island in 1912.


“We like to celebrate being on the right side of history, in terms of having a rich abolitionist heritage and fighting for the Union in the Civil War,” Freeman said. “But that’s not a complete story.”

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Brunswick, which has been partnering with Portland’s Abyssinian Meeting House to celebrate Juneteenth since 2016, has worked hard to examine its own problematic past, including a possible connection to the slave trade, said Rev. Carolyn Eklund.

“Slavery was a huge scar,” she said. “I think it is really, really important for people to understand that it’s with us now, not just a hundred years ago.”

Besides commemorating the end of slavery, which no other holiday does, Juneteenth’s greatest value may lie in its invitation for self-reflection, Purnell said. For citizens of a democracy based on discussion, learning and debate, a holiday can provide an opportunity for growth.

“(Juneteenth) is an important symbolic commemorative moment for the nation to revisit its consistent value of freedom and ask, ‘Who are we as a free nation?,’” he said. “How does the end of slavery in the United States fit into that national identity? Who do we want to be?”

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