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Brewer celebrates Black freedom during 17th Juneteenth commemoration



BREWER, Maine — James Varner asked a group gathered at Chamberlain Freedom Park in Brewer to reflect on the arduous voyage of enslaved Africans to America more than 400 years ago.

Imagine being shackled and separated from family members, being placed on a ship in tight quarters and treated like cattle, said Varner, 89, Maine Human Rights Coalition president and Greater Bangor NAACP co-founder. He spoke to a crowd of about 20 people attending a gathering for Juneteenth, the annual holiday commemorating the end of slavery in the United States.

“I’m so glad that there’s no more, no more auction block for me,” he sang, performing a version of “Many Thousand Gone,” a song popular during the Civil War.

Black Americans have celebrated Juneteenth since the 1860s, but more events have sprung up around Maine and the rest of the nation since President Joe Biden signed legislation in 2021 making it a federal holiday. Most celebrations took place in the southern part of the state Monday, but Brewer held its commemoration for the 17th time.

The origin of the holiday dates back to June 19, 1865, when Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger marched into Galveston, Texas, to inform the last enslaved African-Americans of their freedom and that the Civil War had ended. More than two years earlier, on Jan. 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation, declaring that slaves held in the Confederacy would be freed.


Varner called on the public to examine their own racist behaviors and unconscious biases, which stem from home, the workplace and the media, among other places, he said. He emphasized the gravity of collective action in stamping out racism in America.

“As we celebrate this day, grant us peace in our hearts, reconciliation with our brothers and sisters, a watchful eye to correct ongoing injustice and appreciation for the liberties that we enjoy,” the Rev. Dan Russell of Calvary Baptist Church in Brewer said during a prayer to kick off the event.

Mayor Soubanh Phanthay read a proclamation declaring Juneteenth Celebration Day in Brewer, which is done each year and goes into the city’s record. As an immigrant from southeast Asia — he was born in Laos, then fled as a child to a refugee camp in Thailand — Phanthay was glad to represent the city and reflect on how far it has come.

“I want to impart to you how important it is to learn about our neighbors, about our cultures and customs [and] appreciate our history, but also look forward to our future together,” he said, noting Brewer was one of the first communities in Maine to celebrate Juneteenth.

Varner presented certificates to a few community partners supportive of the Maine Human Rights Coalition, including the city of Brewer, Northern Light Health and a Milford motel. He read a pledge to undo racism and discrimination in America, which he wrote with his late wife.

It encouraged people to treat their fellow humans and living creatures with respect, stress the beauty of diversity, help form coalitions that address discrimination and combat racism on a daily basis, among other points.

Monday’s gathering was meant to inspire people to give life to Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision, said Varner, who witnessed King’s famous 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington, D.C. and has been involved with civil rights work for years.

“I do believe, my friends, that we’re born to love one another,” he said.

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