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Celebrating Juneteenth; Honoring Hagerstown’s First African American Mayor

June is a busy month for celebrations!  Some are just plain silly like National Onion Ring Day; some are sentimental like Father’s Day but the most recent Federal holiday, Juneteenth, is both historic and incredibly important. Juneteenth National Independence Day, signed into law by President Biden in 2021, commemorates the emancipation of enslaved African Americans.  

Some who wonder why this holiday is necessary may not know our country’s traumatic history of race relations. Did you know that one year after the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union were published, legally declaring enslaved individuals to be property as opposed to human beings? Some say we shouldn’t be looking backward; we need to be focused on the future. But we can’t gloss over our nation’s past and pretend it didn’t happen.  Just as you can’t build a new home on a crumbling foundation, we can’t build new and improved racial understanding without addressing past pains. 

With tremendous clarity, poet Maya Angelou put it this way, History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.”  And as President Biden signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act he said, “Great nations don’t ignore their most painful moments. We come to terms with the mistakes we made. And in remembering those moments, we begin to heal and grow stronger.”

In celebration of Juneteenth, I’d like to share an excerpt from my blog entitled, “A Year of Hikes: 52 Weeks, 52 Women, Same Trail” that features Tekesha Martinez, Hagerstown, Maryland’s first African American Mayor. Written in June 2021, you will come to understand that Tekesha is a woman who believes embracing pain is the first step in healing…and how doing so can serve as a model for healing…both on personal and national levels. 

The trail got a little steeper and the conversation got a lot deeper. Asked about her life’s journey, Tekesha didn’t hide from sharing her trauma.  In fact, she said, “Trauma is my training.” Asked about the best advice she ever received, Tekesha replied, “Brad Smith once said, ‘There’s purpose in the pain.’ Every day since I’ve remembered those wise words.” She talked about her mother’s addiction and its impact on her life. For years Tekesha lived with another family. When her mother eventually found sobriety, they were reunited until her mother relapsed. Tekesha and her siblings were separated by social services and she was left feeling alone, devastated, and distrustful of the system meant to help her. Later, Tekesha had five children with four different men, saw her boyfriend killed by police, and went to jail for beating a man who hurt her daughter.  Pain, on top of pain, on top of pain…which means there’s a whole lot of purpose in Tekesha’s life!

Fast forward… today, Tekesha is a loving mother and grandmother to five adult children and 7 amazing grandchildren. She has worked with, encouraged, and supported the youth of Hagerstown. She facilitates the resolution of community issues through mediation, and after being elected as a City Councilwoman, she is now serving as the first African American Mayor of Hagerstown, Maryland.  

She has allowed her pain to define her purpose.  Tekesha intentionally looks for opportunities to share her journey of pain and resiliency as a way of giving hope to others. Tekesha is an example to others who have and are struggling.  She has found her footing, follows her passion, and continues to fulfill her purpose. May that be true of all those she inspires by sharing her story. 

Two years ago, during our hike, I took Tekesha’s photo, as she struck the “strong woman pose”, pretending to lift a tree angled across the trail. It occurred to me that some people are considered strong because of all they have endured. Some for their amazing resilience. Some for the truths they speak and others for their incredible accomplishments.  Tekesha is strong for all these reasons.  Happy Juneteenth, everyone! 

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