Juneteenth is a much undervalued and underpublicized celebration. Since so many people (except, of course, African Americans) seem to not know about it, or not know much about it, here’s some history:
Juneteenth is the oldest nationally celebrated commemoration of the ending of slavery in the United States. Dating back to 1865, it was on June 19th that the Union soldiers, led by Major General Gordon Granger, landed at Galveston, Texas with news that the war had ended and that the enslaved were now free. Note that this was two and a half years after President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation – which had become official January 1, 1863. The Emancipation Proclamation had little impact on the Texans due to the minimal number of Union troops to enforce the new Executive Order. However, with the surrender of General Lee in April of 1865, and the arrival of General Granger’s regiment, the forces were finally strong enough to influence and overcome the resistance.
The Emancipation Proclamation, of course, did not free all enslaved people in the United States, just the ones in the “rebellious states”: in other words, the ones Lincoln couldn’t control. States which permitted slavery, such as Maryland, which were fighting with the Union, were not affected. Those people were freed at the end of the war, just around the time Granger came to Texas. For enslaved people, the Granger arrival as cataclysmic:
One of General Granger’s first orders of business was to read to the people of Texas, General Order Number 3 which began most significantly with:
“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 hired laborer.”
The reactions to this profound news ranged from pure shock to immediate jubilation. While many lingered to learn of this new employer to employee relationship, many left before these offers were completely off the lips of their former ‘masters’ – attesting to the varying conditions on the plantations and the realization of freedom. Even with nowhere to go, many felt that leaving the plantation would be their first grasp of freedom. … Recounting the memories of that great day in June of 1865 and its festivities would serve as motivation as well as a release from the growing pressures encountered in their new territories. The celebration of June 19th was coined “Juneteenth” and grew with more participation from descendants. The Juneteenth celebration was a time for reassuring each other, for praying and for gathering remaining family members. Juneteenth continued to be highly revered in Texas decades later, with many former slaves and descendants making an annual pilgrimage back to Galveston on this date.
Where did Juneteenth go, and who was paying attention to it?
In the early years, little interest existed outside the African American community in participation in the celebrations. In some cases, there was outwardly exhibited resistance by barring the use of public property for the festivities. Most of the festivities found themselves out in rural areas around rivers and creeks that could provide for additional activities such as fishing, horseback riding and barbecues. Often church grounds were the site for such activities. Eventually, as African Americans became land owners, land was donated and dedicated for these festivities. … There are accounts of Juneteenth activities being interrupted and halted by white landowners demanding that their laborers return to work. However, it seems most allowed their workers the day off and some even made donations of food and money. For decades these annual celebrations flourished, growing continuously with each passing year. In Booker T. Washington Park, as many as 20,000 African Americans once attended during the course of a week, making the celebration one of the state’s largest.
Outside of Texas, the celebration seems to have waxed and waned based on various factors, including what was (and what was not!) taught in the schools.
The Civil Rights movement of the 50’s and 60’s yielded both positive and negative results for the Juneteenth celebrations. While it pulled many of the African American youth away and into the struggle for racial equality, many linked these struggles to the historical struggles of their ancestors. This was evidenced by student demonstrators involved in the Atlanta civil rights campaign in the early 1960’s, who wore Juneteenth freedom buttons. Again in 1968, Juneteenth received another strong resurgence through the Poor Peoples March to Washington D.C. Rev. Ralph Abernathy’s call for people of all races, creeds, economic levels and professions to come to Washington to show support for the poor. Many of these attendees returned home and initiated Juneteenth celebrations in areas previously absent of such activities. In fact, two of the largest Juneteenth celebrations founded after this March are now held in Milwaukee and Minneapolis.
Quotes from Juneteenth.com
Abernathy’s direct successor, Reverend Dr. William Barber, has been leading a new Poor People’s Campaign for over a year now. Tune in tomorrow or Sunday to join and/or learn more (details at the link).
Today, in the height of the Black Lives Matter uprising, Juneteenth is all over the news, and there are celebrations in a great many cities. In unprecedented attention to the day, both South and North Dakota are officially recognizing Juneteenth Day today. Some corporations, including Debbie’s employer, have made it a company holiday for the first time. Holidays, celebration, and very belated recognition are a tiny part of the process, and at the same time, they matter. We see today as a day for celebration, and also for reflection: white people need to contend on Juneteenth and the other 364 days of the year with what white supremacy has wrought, and how to dismantle it.