Category Archives: Juneteenth

Juneteenth, Now More than Ever

I imagine many of us have long understood and valued the significance of Juneteenth, but perhaps never as much as this year. In light of all we are learning in just the last few weeks––about ourselves, about our society, and about systemic racism––it is incredibly apparent that the time to make Juneteenth a nationally recognized federal holiday is now.

Juneteenth originated in Texas, where the day was first celebrated in 1865. The Civil War was over; Robert E. Lee had surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomatox Courthouse in Virginia on April 9, 1865. But things were not resolved throughout the land that day. It took a long while for Union forces to bring all the states that had seceded back into the fold. In Texas, this process began more than two months later, on the 18th of June. Union troops arrived on Galveston Island and the next day, June 19, 1865, Union General Gordon Granger read a proclamation from a Galveston balcony:

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. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.

Newly emancipated slaves rejoiced right there in the streets of Galveston. By the year that followed that original proclamation in Galveston, Juneteenth celebrations were sprouting up all over Texas and continued spreading, mostly among African American communities, throughout the country. These earliest Juneteenth celebrations brought folks out in their finest clothes for parades and barbecue and music. Juneteenth now has become a celebration of hard-earned freedoms, and a celebration of African-American culture. A day for family and friends to gather, a day to share stories, and to learn. The road has never been easy, and so it is as well a day to reassure each other against adversity and challenge. The fact that the road is still being forged is all too evident these days, as we continue to work through our troubled history and find paths forward, paths toward complete equality, and toward the elimination of racism at levels to which society seems at times blind. We all could do with a reassessment. We all have lots to learn, and hopefully, on June 19th, you’ll see the Juneteenth flag flying beneath the American flag in your town.

 

Folks often confuse our Lake Worth hometown with Fort Worth, which is in Texas. One great thing Fort Worth has that Lake Worth doesn’t is Opal Lee. Ms. Lee is 93 years old. She has devoted many of those years toward her dream of making Juneteenth a national holiday. Twice she has marched from her home to Washington to make her cause known. She’d probably do it again this Juneteenth, but quarantine is forcing her to march only the two and a half miles from the Will Rogers Colliseum to the Fort Worth Convention Center. Behind her are expected to be hundreds of vehicles in support, while maintaining social distancing to keep Opal and others safe and healthy. She’s doing this for all people, not just for George Floyd, not just for all who have died unjustly, and not just for the sake of Juneteenth. There’s a fine interview you can read with Ms. Opal Lee, and I encourage you to click on her name to read it. I also encourage you to join me in signing her petition to make Juneteenth a national holiday.

 

Freedom Day

It is Juneteenth, a holiday named via portmanteau, a combination of June and Nineteenth: Juneteenth. It marks the day in 1865 when Union soldiers arrived in Galveston, Texas, and announced that slaves were now free and that all laborers were to be paid wages for their work. It is a day when we remember hard-earned freedoms. The day is also known, perhaps more properly, as Freedom Day or Emancipation Day.

How important is a day like Juneteenth? I doubt many of us think about it until we are faced with a strong reminder. Like this one, perhaps: an artists’ book by Ben Blount called Africans in America. It looks like a standard library book: a hardcover book with a buckram binding, the title stamped in gold lettering on the spine. It’s a thick book. A single year is printed on each white page, but a few of those pages are highlighted in red––four pages, to be exact. The book begins at 1619: the year the first Africans were brought to America as slaves. Year after year passes as page after page passes. Then we get to the next page highlighted in red. It’s 1865: the year of that announcement proclaiming emancipation. Again year after year passes as page after page passes. The next red page is 1964 and the passage of the Civil Rights Act. Again, year after year quietly passes until 2009, when Barack Obama, our first African American president, is inaugurated. “Racism is officially ended,” says the book at that page. We all know better. The book is extremely powerful in its minimalism, a visual testimony of all those years of oppression and all that whiteness through all those stark white pages. How do we get out from under the lingering effects of all that heaviness, all that history of slavery and Jim Crow segregation and disenfranchisement? We understand then why a day like Juneteenth is so important. Or why a Pride event is so important. Or a women’s march.

Juneteenth is celebrated mainly in Texas but is spreading more and more with each passing year. From its earliest days in the 1860s, Juneteenth became a day to celebrate those hard-earned freedoms and also a celebration of African-American culture, and a day for family and friends to gather. The road has not been an easy one, and so it is as well a day to reassure each other against adversity and challenge. The fact that the road is still being forged is all too evident these days, as we continue to work through our troubled history and find paths forward, paths toward real equality.

 

Image: Emancipation Day celebration in Richmond, Virginia, c. 1905 [Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons].

 

Emancipation Day

There was a movement a few years back to make Juneteenth a national holiday, but it hasn’t happened yet. It is a public holiday in Texas, where this holiday has its origins: the day was first celebrated there in 1865. The Civil War was over; Robert E. Lee had surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomatox Courthouse in Virginia on April 9, 1865. But things were not resolved throughout the land that day. It took a long while for Union forces to bring all the states that had seceded back into the fold. In Texas, this process began more than two months later, on the 18th of June. Union troops arrived on Galveston Island and the next day, June 19, 1865, Union General Gordon Granger read a proclamation from a Galveston balcony:

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. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.

This is what Juneteenth is all about. It became a celebration of hard-earned freedoms, and a celebration of African-American culture. A day for family and friends to gather. The road has not been an easy one, and so it is as well a day to reassure each other against adversity and challenge. The fact that the road is still being forged is all too evident these days, as we continue to work through our troubled history and find paths forward, paths toward complete equality.

One thing I love about Juneteenth is that I get to remember each year that the word is a portmanteau of the words June and nineteenth. The English major in me gets really excited about a holiday in which I get to use the word portmanteau. It’s such an exquisite word, no? The day is also known, perhaps more properly, as Freedom Day or Emancipation Day. The earliest Juneteenth celebrations brought folks out in their finest clothes for parades and barbecue and music, like the Emancipation Day Celebration Band in the photograph above, from a Juneteenth celebration in Texas in 1900. But when you get right down to it, Juneteenth is a celebration of freedom, pure and simple. Each year on Juneteenth I am reminded not just of the word portmanteau, but most especially that we should never become complacent about our liberties and our freedoms. We realize there are times in our history when this importance has particular resonance. Join me in celebrating today.

 

Image: “Emancipation Day Celebration Band, June 19, 1900, Texas USAby Mrs. Charles Stephenson (Grace Murray). Photograph, 1900 [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons.