TOPEKA — Anthony Lewis says Juneteenth is a time to reflect on progress made in the fight for civil rights and social justice while acknowledging work that remains to achieve equality for all.

Lewis, the superintendent of Lawrence Public Schools who serves on the Kansas African American Affairs Commission, spoke Monday at the Statehouse as the state prepared to celebrate Juneteenth for the first time as an official state holiday.

He asked the crowd who filled the rotunda: “Are we free today?”

There are policies and legislation in place, he said, “for the purposes of ensuring we remain oppressed.” He encouraged the crowd to think of Juneteenth as more than a celebration or “just a day to have off.”

“It’s a call to action,” Lewis said. “It urges us to continue to work toward a society where freedom and justice are realities for all. It is a day to encourage a meaningful conversation about race, equity and the work that still needs to be done to create a truly inclusive society.”

Juneteenth commemorates June 19, 1865, when Union soldiers arrived in Galveston, Texas, and announced that enslaved people would be freed. President Abraham Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, but the news took years to reach Texas and many other places. The 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which abolished slavery, was ratified in December 1865.

President Joe Biden in 2021 signed a law making Juneteenth an annual national holiday. Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly in October 2023 designated Juneteenth as a state holiday for executive branch employees.

Gov. Laura Kelly speaks during a June 17, 2024, celebration of Juneteenth at the Statehouse in Topeka
Gov. Laura Kelly speaks during a June 17, 2024, celebration of Juneteenth at the Statehouse in Topeka. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

“Juneteenth is a time to celebrate the progress we have made and acknowledge the ongoing struggles for racial equality,” Kelly said in a statement Monday. “Kansans have long observed this significant turning point in our nation’s history, and celebrating Juneteenth as a state holiday provides time for reflection.”

Lewis said the holiday symbolizes the resilience, strength and determination of the African American community in the face of adversity and oppression. The historical legacy, he said, is about never giving up hope in uncertain times.

Juneteenth also recognizes “the perseverance of African Americans who fought for their freedom and continue to strive for equality long after the shackles of slavery were removed,” Lewis said.

“It’s not just Black history. It’s our American history,” Lewis said. “The memories are painful — oh, yes, they’re painful — but the struggle for freedom? These are our stories, and these stories must be told. That is how we heel. That is how we move forward. We must teach our children what their ancestors had to endure — not to shame or embarrass anyone, but this is our history.”