By Michelle Palmer
If you haven’t heard about Juneteenth over the last week, maybe you should check your internet connection or call the cable company. So many people have been talking about it in the midst of this Black Lives Matter moment we’re in these last few weeks, and I’m so glad! Juneteenth is a beautiful thing, and my hope is that we see it become a yearly celebration, recognized on a much larger scale than it has been.
If your social media feeds are anything like mine, there’s been a ton of content on Juneteenth in circulation, some which I’ll link here. One of the best articles I’ve read on Juneteenth is this one by historian Henry Louis Gates, Jr., What Is Juneteenth? PBS African American History Blog | The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross, and I’m borrowing from it heavily below.
Here’s the short version: On June 19, 1865, General Gordon Granger led thousands of troops to Galveston, Texas to announce that the Civil War had ended, and slaves had been freed. Around 250,000 Texan slaves had no idea that their freedom had been secured by the government.
Juneteenth celebrations began in 1866, the very first year after emancipation. In the 1870s, a group of former slaves pooled $800 together through local churches to purchase ten acres of land and create Emancipation Park to host future Juneteenth celebrations in modern-day Houston.
But now, let’s go a little deeper.
Firstly, what about Lincoln & the Emancipation Proclamation? It was enacted on January 1st, 1863, a full two & a half years before Juneteenth.
“…the [Emancipation Proclamation], while of enormous symbolic significance, didn’t free all the slaves, only those in the Confederate states in areas liberated by Union troops, and not those in the border states in which slavery remained legal until the ratification of the 13th Amendment [completed on January 31, 1865].” Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
It wasn’t until June, after Texas fell to the Union, that General Granger was able to get word all the way to Galveston, where he announced General Order No. 3:
“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 rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and free laborer.”
But as we know, after slavery, racial inequality persisted.
Gates puts it this way:
“…with each new segregation law, with each new textbook whitewashing and brutal lynching in the South, African Americans felt increasingly disconnected from their history, so that by the time World War II shook the nation, they could no longer faithfully celebrate freedom in a land that still rendered them second-class citizens worthy of dying for their country but not worthy of being honored or treated equally for it.”
It was in the late 1940s, after WWII, that the Civil Rights Movement had its origins. By the 60s and 70s, the Civil Rights Movement led to a renewed interest in Juneteenth celebrations. Al Edwards, member of the Texas State House of Representatives, initiated legislation to recognize Juneteenth Day to the Texas State Legislature, which was signed into law in 1979.
“This is similar to what God instructed Joshua to do as he led the Israelites into the Promised Land. A national celebration of Juneteenth, state by state, serves a similar purpose for us. Every year we must remind successive generations that this event triggered a series of events that one by one defines the challenges and responsibilities of successive generations. That’s why we need this holiday.” – Al Edwards
Juneteenth is a day of remembrance and celebration, but it is also a day we need. We need to be reminded of what was so we can be renewed in our resolve to fight for better tomorrows for all Americans and the pursuit of true freedom and equality.
“Of all Emancipation Day observances, Juneteenth falls closest to the summer solstice, the longest day of the year, when the sun, at its zenith, defies the darkness in every state, including those once shadowed by slavery. By choosing to celebrate the last place in the South that freedom touched …we remember the shining promise of emancipation, along with the bloody path America took by delaying it and deferring fulfillment of those simple, unanticipating words in Gen. Granger’s original order No. 3: that ‘This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves.’ My hope this Juneteenth is that we never forget it.” Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
- PBS: Henry Louis Gates Jr. presents a vital new four-hour documentary series on Reconstruction: America After the Civil War.
- Juneteenth.com: History of Juneteenth
- BBC News: What is Juneteenth day? What you need to know about a historic holiday
- National Museum of African American History and Culture: The Historical Legacy of Juneteenth
- The Atlantic: Juneteenth Has Always Been Worthy of Celebration
- The New Yorker: Juneteenth and the Meaning of Freedom