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In recent weeks, the term “Juneteenth” has trended in our news feeds and national conversations in a way that would belie its 155-year-old history. Crash courses on the holiday have cropped up on social media platforms so much that some users joke (or lament) that they’ve learned more about Black history from these sites than they did from any of their American History classes.
In the season four premiere of the hit ABC sitcom Black-ish (from 2017), Johnson family patriarch and advertising executive Dre campaigns to have Juneteenth recognized after watching his son play Christopher Columbus in a school play, celebrating his life without acknowledging his consequences in the larger picture of American History. Dre goes so far as hiring singer Aloe Blacc to write a jingle for the holiday (“I Am a Slave” performed with The Roots).
Dre believed that by letting people know about Juneteenth and its place in American history, the need to celebrate it would be undeniable. He perhaps hadn’t heard yet about Ms. Opal Lee’s journey to have Juneteenth declared a federal holiday. In September 2016, one month before her 90th birthday, the native Texan began a walk from her hometown to Washington DC, collecting signatures and support along the way. (Read more about Opal Lee here. You can also sign Opal’s petition to get Juneteenth recognized nationally.)
But his pitch is met with confusion and counterarguments from his colleagues. Is it really needed if we already have MLK Day? They ask. Can we compete with Father’s Day and wedding season? They wonder. At home he laments to his parents, Ruby and Pops, his wife Bow, and his kids Junior, Zoey, Jack and Diane:
Ruby: People are never going to celebrate something they barely even want to admit happened.
Dre: Look, I get that. But can we at least have one day where the country acknowledged it? It would feel like, I don’t know, an apology…
Bow: Instead of waiting for an apology, why don’t we just do something? If we want to honor the end of slavery, then we should celebrate Juneteenth.
Zoey: “Wait, that’s what Juneteenth is?
Junior: We don’t celebrate the end of slavery, but you wake us up on cyber Monday?
In a way, this brief exchange captures the paradox of this holiday. It commemorates one of the most important moments in American history, and yet for most of the past 155 years it has remained either unknown or undefined to large parts of the country, including Black populations outside of regions with established civic celebrations. For many viewers, this episode was the first lesson they received on the holiday also known as Jubilee Day, Celebration Day, or Black Independence Day. Like Junior and Zoey, we may have heard the name, may have associated it with Black culture, but the specifics were mostly or entirely left out of our schooling and we never questioned why or investigated further. As Ruby astutely points out, a celebration first requires acknowledgement, and acknowledgement requires knowledge. (You can watch the full episode titled “Juneteenth” on Hulu. You can also check out highlights from the musical numbers “We Built This” and “Freedom”)
So, What Is Juneteenth?
Juneteenth is the oldest and most popular celebration of the emancipation of slaves in the United States. Originally termed “Jubilee Day”, it became more commonly known as “Juneteenth” in the early 1900s, referring to June 19, 1865, the day that Major General Gordon Granger of the Union Army arrived in Galveston, TX to announce the end of slavery.
Wait a minute—wasn’t slavery already over? Like, for a while?
Yes…ish. History books have taught us about the Emancipation Proclamation that freed (some) enslaved people on January 1, 1863. It technically only applied to the states that seceded from the Union, which meant that it didn’t apply to enslaved people in border states that remained loyal to the Union. It also exempted parts of the Confederacy that had come under Northern control.
Emancipation did become permanent with the ratification of the 13th Amendment on December 6, 1863, stating that “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” (For more on the consequences of this amendment, and how it affects our world today, I strongly recommend you check out Ava DuVernay’s documentary 13th, available on Netflix.)
We may have learned dates and proclamations, but the reality of emancipation was not so neatly accomplished. A system of oppression like slavery couldn’t just be cancelled, like a TV show that had lost its viewers. Freeing enslaved people from literal chains took years, and the metaphorical chains remained for decades longer.
Slaveholders were reluctant (to say the least) to comply. Some went so far as to migrate their human property (up to 150,000) into west Texas rather than having to free them. Texas had remained largely untouched by the action of the Civil War, and so endured as one of the last outposts of slavery. There are several theories as to why Texas didn’t get the memos about emancipation. Some say that the message never made it that far west, some say that the message was received but ignored by slaveholders who wanted to keep their unpaid workforce for another harvest, or as long as possible.
But on June 19, 1865 the message was delivered loud and clear, not just to the slave owners but to the enslaved people. General Order No. 3 stated: “The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property, between former masters and slaves and the connection heretofore existing between them, becomes that between employer and hired labor.”
Celebration was immediate and jubilant. Some newly freed Black people were walking away from Galveston as the words were still on Gordon’s lips, on their way to find family and loved ones scattered across the other states. Others stayed to fill the streets with singing, dancing, and feasting in celebration of their freedom, a freedom finally extended throughout the entire country. It was the first Juneteenth celebration, and it set the tradition of commemorating the end of slavery that continues today.
When Did We Start Celebrating Juneteenth?
Free Black people in Galveston, Texas gathered the following year on June 19th to celebrate their freedom and have been celebrating ever since. Juneteenth evolved as a combination of “June” and “nineteenth”. Organized celebration waxed and waned over 155 years as social, economic, and legislative changes made it difficult to gather. By the mid-century, commemorative activities had mostly been constricted to more local or familial gatherings.
The Civil Rights Movement led to a revitalization and expansion of this essential day of recognition. After Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination in April of 1968, his widow, Coretta Scott King, and Rev. Ralph Abernathy determined to carry on the Poor People’s March that had been planned for that summer. The event suffered from difficult conditions, conflicts and racial tension, and was eventually cut short in June after several weeks in Washington. The organizers decided to end with a large celebration of Juneteenth as a way to come together. Many of the participants took the tradition back to their hometowns, with annual festivities cropping up across the county.
Texas was the first state to officially recognize Juneteenth in 1980. As of 2020, 47 states plus the District of Columbia had followed suit, with some either making it a state holiday or a day of observance. New York State recognized it as a day of observance in 2004, and on June 17, 2020 Governor Andrew Cuomo issued an Executive Order declaring Juneteenth as a holiday for state employees, and will see to have it declared an official state holiday in 2021.
Even without the state legislation, Buffalo’s Juneteenth Festival has been in full swing since 1976, first on Jefferson Avenue and then in its current location at MLK Park, and is currently the third largest celebration in the country.
How can you celebrate Juneteenth?
Many of today’s festivities are reflections of those first celebrations, honoring the history and experiences of Black people who were freed from enslavement. Activities in the early years were meant to entertain the masses and included rodeos, fishing, barbequing, and sports. There is also a focus on education and self-improvement, as well as reflection and prayer on the past and toward the future.
Foods synonymous with Juneteenth include strawberry soda and barbecue, and often special foods were prepared. In the early years, dress was an important part of the custom. Laws prohibited or limited the clothes that enslaved people could wear. Freed Black people and their direct descendants, in throwing off not just the chains but all limitations, made a point to dress in their best clothes as a sign of freedom. In early years, when white critics mocked the ability of Black people to dress well, participants responded by raising the style bar even higher. This reached peak expression in the 1920’s when consumer culture was really taking off.
Today, you can celebrate in many ways, not the least of which is to check out what’s happening in your own city. Parades, performances, vendors, food, lectures, games, and shared stories are often part of these celebrations. Experience, watch, listen, eat. This year, gathering to celebrate isn’t possible, but there are still ways to start exploring this holiday at home. Some ideas include:
- Plan a family dinner where you can talk about Juneteenth and what it means personally, as well as nationally.
- Have discussions with friends and colleagues about the meaning and intent of Juneteenth, and how significant and historical events have impacted your life.
- Encourage your neighborhood to display signs celebrating Juneteenth.
- Make a point to thank those who have helped open doors for you and your achievements.
- Take some personal time to reflect and to look forward. Plan for future goals.
Why Do We Celebrate Juneteenth?
As Ruby noted in the Black-ish episode: “People are never going to celebrate something they barely even want to admit happened.” With the events of the past few weeks, Juneteenth is more in the forefront of news cycles, as overdue conversations about the unacknowledged history and repercussions are beginning to happen.
Juneteenth celebrates African American achievements and remembers a past that is integral to American history, although not known as widely as other events. We’re used to celebrating Independence Day on the fourth of July, but for the first 89 years, that independence wasn’t shared by everyone. Juneteenth honors the day when all Americans could finally live free. In fact, Buffalo’s Juneteenth festival was established by BUILD, a community-based organization, as a “culturally relevant alternative to the country’s Bicentennial Celebration”, which celebrated the 200th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Marcus Brown, Juneteenth of Buffalo, Inc. President, has been a part of the celebration since it began. You can hear him talk about its importance Here.
Juneteenth is a remembrance, but more importantly it’s a celebration. It’s a national day of pride, one that the nation can all join in to celebrate freedom and Black achievement. It is a day of reflection, one that encourages self-development and respect for all cultures. As noted in the mission: “It is inclusive of all races, ethnicities, and nationalities–as nothing is more comforting than the hand of a friend.” (Juneteenth.com)
So then Who celebrates Juneteenth?
The answer is, ideally, all Americans.
“Won’t it be wonderful when Black history and Native American history and Jewish history and all of U.S. history is taught from one book. Just U.S. history.” -Maya Angelou
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Want More Info? There are lots of great resources out there. Here are just a few:
Ava DuVernay’s Documentary 13th