Although Malcolm Ruff didn’t have a formal celebration for Juneteenth growing up, his annual Juneteenth Jubilee has become a must-attend commemorative event attracting around 250 people to his Northwest Baltimore home.

“I think it gives us a space to fully and truly exude our Blackness,” he said. “The freedom of being Black, the celebration of being Black. We’re reflecting on the struggles that our people have had and where we have come. We all get to share our stories. It’s Black Baltimore excellence at its best.”

Last year, Gov. Wes Moore attended — while still a candidate.

“He gave a speech off the back porch,” Ruff recalled. “It’s inspiration. It’s a peer celebration. It’s an emotional time to reflect on our ancestors. To think about the people whose shoulders we have stood on. And it’s a good time. Everyone jams out.”

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Malcolm Ruff reaches out to the crowd in his backyard with Governor Wes Moore after Moore announced he was appointing Ruff to a seat in Maryland's House of Delegates at Ruff's annual Juneteenth celebration on Saturday, June 17, 2023. Ruff pledged to do everything he could for West Baltimore. (Dylan Thiessen/The Baltimore Banner)
Guests line up for food at Malcolm Ruff's annual Juneteenth celebration on Saturday, June 17, 2023. (Dylan Thiessen/The Baltimore Banner)

For many Black Americans, Juneteenth is their Fourth of July, as Black people in the United States were not free or did not have equal rights when the fledgling country declared its independence from Britain, which ultimately led to the formation of the United States of America.

“Juneteenth is our primary celebration. We didn’t do anything for July Fourth. We don’t really have plans for July Fourth anymore,” Ruff said.

“It’s not that we intentionally do not celebrate it. We have our own celebration now,” Ruff continued. “American freedom has not been the story of Black freedom. Even after we became free of the tyranny of the British, we still didn’t have freedom. It’s taking ownership of our freedom. It’s a more poignant and a personal celebration than the Fourth of July.”

Ruff is part of a growing number of people celebrating Juneteenth, which commemorates the day when the last enslaved African descendants, who were in Texas, learned they were free.

Although President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation freed enslaved Africans in America in 1863, it could not be enforced in many parts of the South until after the Civil War ended in 1865.

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Juneteenth became a national holiday in 2021 when President Joe Biden signed a bill passed by Congress to recognize Juneteenth, June 19th, as a federal holiday.

Despite Juneteenth being a federal holiday, some states are choosing not to observe it, according to a Pew Research Center article, which found that at least 28 states including Maryland and the District of Columbia will legally recognize Juneteenth as a public holiday. As a result, state government offices will close and workers will have a paid day off. Maryland has commemorated Juneteenth with a gubernatorial proclamation since 2014.

Moore, who recalled his mother making a point to educate him about Black history because he wasn’t being taught about it in school, said he learned the importance of events like Juneteenth and what the emancipation of enslaved African Americans means to the community.

“Today we are watching the teaching of that history being attacked, and it is our duty to ensure that we are properly educating all of our children about the good, the bad, and even the ugly truths,” Moore told The Banner. “This Juneteenth, I’m thinking about all of the brave Marylanders that helped fight against slavery in America — leaders like Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman who put their lives on the line to make our country better. I like to think that every day we’re fighting to build a Maryland that they would be proud of.”

Governor Wes Moore clasps his hands during Malcolm Ruff's annual Juneteenth celebration on Saturday, June 17, 2023. (Dylan Thiessen/The Baltimore Banner)

Karsona “Kaye” Wise Whitehead, a professor of communication and African and African American studies at Loyola University Maryland, said the holiday is complicated because it has been mischaracterized as the Independence Day for Black Americans, which it isn’t.

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Instead, the country should really be celebrating the independence of Black people on Dec. 6, when the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery was ratified.

“I think it is confusing people,” said Whitehead, who is also the founder and executive director of the Karson Institute for Race, Peace & Social Justice. “I understand why we celebrate. But we have to make sure that we know about this day. We can hold it up, we can celebrate it. But the notion that this information was kept from enslaved Black people makes the day a little more complicated. It’s important even in the celebration that we acknowledge the complexities. It doesn’t make it less important.”

Ultimately Whitehead hopes that Juneteenth does not get co-opted like Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, a federal holiday in January, which she said is “no longer ours.”

She wants these initial years as the country recognizes Juneteenth as a federal holiday to be focused on the history surrounding the date.

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Scott Bacon, the executive chef at Magdalena in Mount Vernon, said he focuses on the positivity of the holiday.

“It wasn’t taught in school. Surprisingly, my white grandfather explained what it was. It needs to be taught to young people. In society, we need to make it a strong, proud day,” Bacon said.

Bacon said he chooses to recognize Juneteenth as his Independence Day.

“People like me were given what white men were given on July Fourth,” he said.

Baker Amanda Mack is closing her Whitehall Mill food stall, Crust by Mack, and reopening in Midtown-Belvedere this fall.
Baker Amanda Mack is closing her Whitehall Mill food stall, Crust by Mack, and reopening in Midtown-Belvedere this fall. Handout photo by Kristina Williams.

Bacon will host a Juneteenth collaboration tonight at his restaurant, featuring dishes from other local Black chefs, including Amanda Mack of Crust by Mack, Durian Neal of Loving Spoon Collective and Malcolm Sizer of The Urban Oyster.

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The event will also feature work from local Black artists, live music and spoken word performances.

Bacon’s offerings include: “Next Stop: Chesapeake Station,” a dish comprised of smoked blue catfish, Moroccan spiced duck fat tater tots, field caviar, soft herbs; and “Then Came Agriculture,” with grilled local mushrooms, house made Worcestershire, collard green salsa verde, Virginia peanuts, and benne.

Bacon said his focus is on serving dishes that represent sustainability and locally sourced ingredients.

“These are important in the history of Black people in the Chesapeake Bay area,” he explained.

Mack, who was named Cook Of The Year by Southern Living magazine in 2021, will make “Of Land & Lions,” a savory dish comprised of charred okra hash, gruyere and parmesan roux, on pastry, and “Sweet Chariot,” a rich dark chocolate, black-seeded watermelon Bundt cake.

“Juneteenth reminds me of the resilience each of us hold within ourselves and that we can do anything we put our minds to. It makes me proud to be Black and honored to be a Black mother. Knowing that I am part of a legacy and bloodline that created so much with very little inspires me to make the most of what I have in front of me,” Mack said. “As a Black woman in business, I’ve overcome many challenges that my white counterparts have not. And with Juneteenth only becoming a federal holiday in 2021, this mirrors the way African Americans in this country are still fighting for visibility and respect.”

Martha Ruff pours out water during the libation ceremony as her son Malcolm Ruff looks on during his annual Juneteenth celebration on Saturday, June 17, 2023. (Dylan Thiessen/The Baltimore Banner)

Ruff, a 39-year-old trial lawyer at the Murphy, Falcon & Murphy law firm who was tapped by Moore over the weekend for a vacancy in the Maryland House of Delegates, was fully immersed in Black culture growing up. His mother, Martha Ruff, is well known as a griot, a teller of Black stories. But their family focused more of their attention celebrating Kwanzaa than Juneteenth.

That changed in 2021, when Ruff threw his first Juneteenth celebration.

Ruff and his wife decided to start throwing the party to coincide with the move into their new home, as well as Juneteenth becoming a federal holiday.

Sydnee Wilson Ruff, the executive director of Blue Water Baltimore, stressed that her event is not “just a party.”

“Our Juneteenth Jubilee is a manifestation of the African philosophy of ubuntu, which is sometimes translated as, ‘I am because we are,’” she said. “Black people wouldn’t have survived, on this soil, without the power of community. So we take time to honor the fortitude and tenacity of our ancestors, while celebrating the fact that we’re still here.”

Wilson Ruff, 37, added: “It’s an opportunity to recommit to the edification of our people. The joy is palpable, and our guests start talking about next year before the night is through. It’s easily my favorite day of the year.”

John-John Williams IV is a diversity, equity and inclusion reporter at The Baltimore Banner. A native of Syracuse, N.Y. and a graduate of Howard University, he has lived in Baltimore for the past 17 years.

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