When Skywalker Payne first moved to Texas, she was surprised that people were celebrating Juneteenth — the holiday that commemorates the day in 1865 when Union soldiers brought word to Texas that slavery had ended. That was more than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed.
“But as I studied and read more recent history of it, we’re celebrating the day of complete freedom for all Black people in the United States from slavery," she said.
Payne lives in Homer now, where she runs her own storytelling business and tells stories about Alaska’s own Black history.
And now, Juneteenth is a federal holiday. President Joe Biden in 2021 designated June 19 of every year Juneteenth.
There was a celebration in honor of Pride and Juneteenth in Homer this weekend, as well as festivities in Anchorage.
Payne said she celebrated by texting and wishing the people in her life a happy holiday.
“Having a celebration of when slavery ended in this country reminds people that it’s something to celebrate that people are free and freedom is never guaranteed, and we have to constantly work to maintain it and to protect it for everybody," Payne said.
She said even though slavery has been illegal in Alaska since statehood, she thinks its an important chance for Alaskans to think about how freedom means lifting up all voices — especially, she says, as the concept has been distorted and used to divide.
“And if we want to remain a whole country, we should be saying, well, you know, freedom is something that’s much deeper and heavier than we were ever raised to understand," she said.
She thinks within the state there’s a growing awareness of Alaska’s own Black history.
Last year, Payne recorded a series of stories about Alaska’s Black history with KBBI. The National Parks Service and the University of Alaska Anchorage have a book about Alaska’s Black History called “Black History in the Last Frontier,” which you can read online.