Just two years ago most people in Oregon had likely never heard of Juneteenth.
But Aceia “Ace” Spade not only knew what it was, she had made it her mission to educate others about the June 19 holiday celebrating liberty and freedom from slavery.
Spade was named Miss Juneteenth Oregon in June 2019, and in the time since, the world has seen a global pandemic and Black Lives Matter protests calling for accountability and a racial reckoning for the murders of George Floyd and other Black people.
“The pandemic was a reality check for everyone,” says Spade, now 17 and a senior at Churchill High School. And the BLM protests? “The riots were amazing to me. It makes me happy to see people stand up for what they believe in. Posting on the internet is not really doing anything. People were out there doing it.”
A couple other key things have happened since Spade was named Miss Juneteenth Oregon.
Juneteenth was signed into law as a federal holiday by President Joe Biden in June 2021, and Spade herself was named the winner of the second National Miss Juneteenth Scholarship Program in October.
Juneteenth traces back to Galveston, Texas. It recognizes June 19, 1865, when Major General Gordon Granger issued “General Order No. 3,” declaring that all slaves were free — two-and-a-half years after President Abraham Lincoln’s Jan. 1, 1863, Emancipation Proclamation.
The national pageant, which took place in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Oct. 16 during the centennial year of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, took place at the annual meeting of the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation. It was planned and produced by the National Miss Juneteenth Scholarship Program Committee and endorsed by NJOF. NJOF worked for more than a quarter of a century to have Juneteenth recognized as a national holiday and has been instrumental in the passage of bills recognizing Juneteenth in more than 40 states and the District of Columbia.
“We became an overnight success after 27 years,” jokes Deborah “Dee” Evans, communications director for the NJOF, of the work the foundation has done. “We spent all those years getting 1.6 million signatures on a petition to get the attention of the Senate,” she says. “Then one morning we woke up, and said, ‘We got a holiday. Done.’”
But, Evans added later, “the work is not done. Juneteenth education must now begin.” She says that the country must know why they suddenly have a day off of work in June, inaccurate stories told as factual must be corrected and connections to history of this country must be made to uncover the hidden truths such as the Tulsa Massacre, which she says, was buried for years.
Juneteenth was also recognized as a holiday in Oregon in 2021, and Spade will remind you that is largely in part due to the work of a woman named Clara Peoples.
Peoples moved to Oregon from Muskogee, Oklahoma, and she was surprised to discover Juneteenth, also called Emancipation Day or Freedom Day, was not celebrated here. She worked in the Kaiser Shipyards in Portland and she asked her supervisor if she could tell hundreds of fellow employees that June 19 was an important day. She was given permission to make a brief announcement, and that day in 1945 was Oregon’s first Juneteenth celebration.
Her granddaughter, Jenelle Jack, says in light of the national recognition of Juneteenth and an Oregonian winning the national pageant: “Grandmother would have the biggest smile on her face, with her thumbs up, saying, ‘Right on, right on.’”
She adds, “It’s bittersweet,” being able to see what Peoples started and what she was part of nationally and locally come to life. Her dream, Jack says, is “coming true and we get to live it and see it through our eyes.”
Peoples died in 2015, and her granddaughter, who is the director of Juneteenth Oregon, says she wishes Peoples were here to celebrate, “to see all her hard work paid off.”
And as for Spade,”It’s an honor to have Aceia part of our program; her determination, commitment and overall attitude is absolutely amazing,” Jack says. “I’ve watched Aceia grow for the past several years as Miss Juneteenth Oregon. She really wanted this and she set her mind to it and brought it back home to Oregon.”
The Miss Juneteenth Oregon Program looks to provide education, tools and resources to help youth build resilience, gain confidence and make positive life choices, and empower Black and Brown youth in Oregon and southwest Washington.
Back in 2019, Spade and her mother drove to Portland every other weekend for Miss Juneteenth workshops, and in 2021 was not slowed down by a torn ACL when it came time to go to Tulsa for the pageant. Spade plays basketball at Churchill and while her playing may be sidelined for a bit, her work as Miss Juneteenth has continued.
As a result of the pandemic Spade held on to the crown, allowing her to compete in this year’s national scholarship competition. In 2022 another young woman will assume the role, and, Spade emphasizes, it’s not about winning, it’s about the relationships and empowerment, which she says the workshops that have now resumed in-person are part of. At one recent session the young people learned CPR.
Juneteenth Oregon made it possible for Spade to go to Tulsa, where she campaigned on a platform of “equality,” she says. The scholarship pageant also had an essay component, evening gown segment and an interview. Spade says the question she pulled out of a hat was: “How do you know you have Black Girl Magic?”
Spade says, “You know you have magic when you know who you are, and who you want to be and believe in yourself.”
Evans says it is possible Spade will represent Juneteenth at the Rose Bowl celebration and is heading to Washington D.C. in December.
When asked what she would say to President Biden if she meets him, Spade says she’d tell him “thank you” for making Juneteenth a national holiday and ask him to spread more awareness and knowledge about Juneteenth.
Evans agrees that the work is not done. She says there are as yet untold histories of Black people in America. She points to the educational materials on the NJOF website and the work the foundation is doing in areas like wi-fi — trying to bridge the digital divide by bringing internet connectivity — and giving books and bookshelves to help children develop their own personal libraries. “Our ancestors were not allowed to learn to read,” Evans says.
She encourages people to get involved. “We are not a membership type of organization,” she says. “We don’t charge fees, we have community organizations, the NAACP, schools and libraries all participating. You don’t know who’s going to come in, but we’re all part of the Juneteenth Nation.”
Spade has advice for other young people dreaming of representing Juneteenth: “I hope other people see my confidence. I really don’t care what people say about me, and I think everybody should feel like that you shouldn’t be scared to be yourself in front of people.”
She adds, “Don’t be scared to ever compete or that you can’t do something. Change starts with you.”