Key West musician Toko Irie will perform at Key West’s Juneteenth ceremony. NICK DOLL/Contributed

For generations, American schoolchildren learned that the Emancipation Proclamation, issued by President Abraham Lincoln on Jan. 1, 1863, freed the slaves. But that’s not accurate. The proclamation only freed slaves in the Union. With the Civil War still in progress, Confederate states did not abide by Union laws, and slavery continued in the Confederacy until Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox, Virginia on April 9, 1865, ending the war and putting the Emancipation Proclamation into effect for all.

But it took two months for word to spread. On June 19, 1865, Union Gen. Gordon Granger reached Galveston, Texas, and informed the enslaved African-Americans there that the war had ended and they were free.

The day became known as Juneteenth and has been celebrated ever since as the true end of slavery in America, because freedom without knowledge of it was no freedom at all.

Last year, President Biden signed legislation to make Juneteenth a national holiday called Juneteenth Independence Day. This Saturday, June 18, the holiday celebrations in Key West will take place at the African Cemetery on Higgs Beach.

Gene Tinnie tells the story behind Key West’s African Cemetery, which contains the graves of Africans who were rescued from a slave ship only to die from the harsh conditions they endured on board. MANDY MILES/Keys Weekly

Traditional Caribbean and Afro-American food will be available, along with special cocktails by Key West’s First Legal Rum Distillery, and mixtures by Dumps will be served from noon until the parade departs the area around 6 p.m. 

There will be music from the African Diaspora and live reggae and Caribbean music performances by Toko Irie and his children Nina, Naomi, Aaron, Ian and Ariel Newton. The live entertainment starts at 1 p.m. 

Key West will celebrate Juneteenth at the African Cemetery on Higgs Beach. MANDY MILES/Keys Weekly

The formal celebration begins at 3 p.m. with words by the founders of the African Cemetery, Corey Malcom and Gene Tinnie, as well as other dignitaries, said coordinator Veronica Stafford.

The evening will end with a Caribbean Carnival Parade through the streets of Key West and will end at the stairs of the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum, one of the major sponsors. Keys Auto will provide golf carts for those unable to dance the entire route of the parade.

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