McALLEN — A crowd made up of children, parents and community organizers marched through the streets of downtown McAllen heading to the Bethel Missionary Baptist Church to celebrate Juneteenth on Wednesday evening.

They were led by Sharyland High School student Elijah Terry who donned military fatigues and carried the American flag as they walked in the heat to the garden of historic church, which was founded in 1936. Children, parents and community organizers marched side by side in a roughly 1.5-mile trip round trip that signifies freedom from slavery.

Elijah Terry carries the U.S. Flag during the the annual Juneteenth Freedom Walk on Wednesday, June 19, 2019, in McAllen. (Joel Martinez | jmartinez@themonitor.com)

Juneteenth is a holiday celebrating the abolition of slavery in 1865, and is recognized by a majority of states on June 19. The Freedom Walk began at Cine El Rey with a crowd of about 30 people that walked to Bethel Missionary Baptist Church before returning back to the venue. Raymond Howard and Faith Fellowship Church at McAllen Pastor Michael Smith organized the event.

Although they are a minority in the Valley, people have been welcoming, Smith said.

“The city of Edinburg and McAllen have embraced us to be able to celebrate and they are celebrating with us,” Smith said.

The Edinburg observance has 26 years of history, and expanded into the first year in McAllen for Juneteenth celebrations, he said.

Juneteenth gives him a sense of perseverance through historical memory.

“(I) remember what my ancestors went through, but I can also remember now that because of that we can move forward,” Smith said.

Slavery began in America when slaves arrived in Virginia in 1619, according to historians.

This marks 400 years since then, which adds to the significance of this Juneteenth, he said.

Participants rest at the site of the Bethal Gardens during the annual Juneteenth Freedom Walk on Wednesday, June 19, 2019, in McAllen. (Joel Martinez | jmartinez@themonitor.com)

After the “Freedom Walk,” organizers honored Lula Eugene Stroud, the oldest alumnus of the first African American school in McAllen. Her family and city officials honored her in a reception, along with a screening of the documentary film, “Just a Ferry Ride to Freedom.”

Muralist Cristela Cano painted the “The Substance of Hope” depicting the Booker T. Washington Neighborhood and School on the side of the fence in the garden by the historic church. The mural was based on newspaper clippings and photographs. At the end of the journey, an audience gathered to hear of Cano’s presentation of creating the mural with a large wooden cross in the background.

“Today is really the beginning of a long journey, everything is about going forward, for us to reflect on the people that lived in this neighborhood … to realize that life is gonna (be a) struggle and it’s not in one lifetime, it’s not in one moment, but it’s a continuation,” Cano said.

The mural on the fence depicted landmarks such as Garcia’s Grocery, graduating school children and the historic layout all under a blue sky with people making life milestones.

Participants walk along 16th street during the annual Juneteenth Freedom Walk on Wednesday, June 19, 2019, in McAllen. (Joel Martinez | jmartinez@themonitor.com)

“The message of this event was honoring our ancestors,” she added.

Other events of the week included a memorial service, traveling exhibit and jazz and soul night during the week of Juneteenth Observance in the Valley for 2019.

Retired teacher Sharon Smith has participated in other events and rallies for the African American community. Her family has roots in Mississippi but moved to Texas for a better life, she said.

“It means that we have so many opportunities that our ancestors didn’t have in the past… to me it means that keep on striving to do more and to be better,” Sharon Smith said.

jhoang@themonitor.com