Jubilation and Triumph: The Nuanced History of Juneteenth and the Renewed Focus on Social Change
Updated: Jun 30, 2021
Update: President Joe Biden has signed legislation establishing Juneteenth as a U.S. federal holiday. The new legislation has created some mixed responses. Some government offices, businesses, and schools will remain open while others close in observance. This article was written prior to the legislation being passed and signed. This is the first step in properly recognizing celebrations, hopefully more meaningful legislation follows. As we quickly approach the summer season, many of us are gearing up for barbecues, vacations, and spending more time with our family and friends. Some of us are even marking our calendars in advance for the Fourth of July fireworks. It was once thought that the Fourth of July was as American as apple pie, since it commemorates our country’s founding and the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Every year, many U.S. citizens would fire up the grill for festive cookouts, view fireworks bursting high in the sky, watch a medley of performances and parades, and enjoy an assortment of red, white, and blue confections from dusk until dawn.
However, for a considerable percentage of the population, the Fourth of July doesn’t equate to their liberation. Instead, there’s another event that deserves the same amount of attention and federal recognition, and that’s June 19, 1865. Otherwise known as Juneteenth, this is the date that everyone living in the U.S., including the formerly enslaved, were officially granted freedom. Unfortunately, many African Americans never learned about this important day in U.S. history. Juneteenth was somewhat hidden in educational textbooks and materials. It wasn’t until the murder of George Floyd at the hands of corrupt police officer Derek Chauvin (which sparked worldwide protests and shined an international spotlight on the BLM movement), along with the publicized police killings of Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, that the conversations about making Juneteenth a federal holiday arose again. There was also a national resurgence of Black pride and truth to power, as African Americans attempted to honor the fallen lives of their own by remembering the historical struggles of their community.
It’s a prominent fact that the wealth of historical contributions and the backstories of many enslaved Africans and their descendants are either whitewashed or ignored. As difficult as it might be for some people to face, it’s also a well-known fact that one-third of the founding fathers were slaveholders, including Thomas Jefferson, who famously incorporated a passage in the original declaration denouncing slavery, but quietly and swiftly removed it because the South relied heavily on the slave trade for economic survival. Some people don’t even know that the Civil War was fought over the continuation of slavery. One year later, in 1777, it was legally solidified through The Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union, that the enslaved were recorded as “other persons” or property instead of human beings. This egregious legal classification would continue for decades to come.
All that being said, the national resurgence of the BLM movement sparked something that African Americans haven’t widely experienced since the Civil Rights and Pan Africanist movements, the ability to be seen and heard. They have the chance to air out their grievances with a country who preaches about being the “land of the free,” but had forefathers who championed, supported, and condoned slavery. This staunch contradiction is only amplified by the constant repression of Juneteenth, because to mention Juneteenth would be to reveal the irony and hypocrisy of this country’s foundational ideals and values.
Now in 2021, as we mark the 100-year anniversary of the Black Wall St. bombing in Tulsa, OK; the guilty verdict of Derek Chauvin in the murder of George Floyd; the lack of justice in Breonna Taylor’s murder; renewed discussions of reparations; the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act; the John Lewis Voting Rights Act; and the murders of Andrew Brown Jr. and Daunte Wright; we once again gather around in the month of June to celebrate Juneteenth. There’s no better way of shifting the narrative or promoting the culture than revisiting the backstory of Juneteenth, the case for why it should be commemorated as a national holiday, and the various ways you can celebrate this year!
Juneteenth: The facts
According to the official website, Juneteenth is “the oldest nationally celebrated commemoration of slavery in the United States.” Juneteenth is a combination of the words “June” and “nineteenth,” on this day 155 years ago, Major General Gordon Granger of the Union Army arrived in Texas to inform the enslaved that the Civil War has ended, and slavery was abolished. The pivotal date not only serves as a significant period in American history, but gives African Americans the opportunity to cherish their lineage and heritage.
President Abraham Lincoln issued the proclamation declaring the abolishment of slavery on January 1, 1863, in the nation’s third year of an ongoing civil war. Famously known as the Emancipation Proclamation, it declared that ‘all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State […] shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.’ Granger’s prerogative in Texas was to enforce this decree, which had originally gone into effect two years earlier. On June 19, in the city of Galveston, Granger publicly read General Order No. 3, which stated: “The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free.”
The 250,000 enslaved people in Texas were astounded at the news, since Texas was virtually unaffected by the proclamation. The Emancipation Proclamation had a slight loophole, which declared that all enslaved people in the rebellious confederate states- South Carolina, Texas, Tennessee, Virginia, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Arkansas were free – but those who were considered property in bordering states loyal to the Union weren’t fully liberated. Texas, which was considered a safe haven for slave owners, was largely unaffected due to the lack of Union Army occupation during the war. The absence of Union soldiers was more of a geographical issue because it was the furthest away from the frontlines (the border between the Union and the Confederacy) during the war. Many traitors from neighboring states fled to Texas to avoid capture with their illegal enslaved people.
There are different accounts as to why it took so long for news of the abolition of slavery to reach Texas. One interpretation claims the messenger bearing the news was assassinated on his journey. Other historians believe slaveholders purposely withheld the report of the Emancipation Proclamation to continue meeting their bottom line and labor quota. Furthermore, historians note that Texas was a confederate state up until 1865, meaning that Lincoln’s emancipation couldn’t have been properly enforced until Robert E. Lee’s impending surrender to the Union Army and their complete takeover.
Regardless of which record is correct, there were massive celebrations and forms of jubilation that took place among newly freed Black people. That December, slavery in America was formally ended with the adoption of the 13th Amendment. The following year, Texas freedmen organized a celebration on June 19th called “Jubilee Day,” which set the precedent for annual Juneteenth celebrations. The ensuing decades saw commemorations featuring barbecues, music, prayer services, family reunification and an array of activities. As the African American migration spread from Texas to other parts of the country, so did Juneteenth traditions. Celebrations expanded when a coalition of African American ministers and entrepreneurs in Houston purchased 10 acres of land and created Emancipation Park, which was a space designated for the city’s yearly Juneteenth celebration. Some formerly enslaved people and their descendants even made an annual pilgrimage back to Galveston for periods of reflection and remembrance.
Today, many Juneteenth celebrations typically occur in people’s backyards, although some cities, like Washington, D.C. and Atlanta, host larger events, such as parades and festivals coordinated by residents, public figures, and local businesses. This year, Galveston will dedicate a 5,000 square-foot mural entitled “Absolute Equality” on the location where General Granger made his announcement to enslaved African Americans about their freedom. The holiday will also be commenced with a parade and picnic.
Juneteenth as a national holiday: Will it ever happen?
In 1980, Texas became the first state to proclaim Juneteenth as an official holiday. Currently, at least 48 states and the District of Columbia recognize Juneteenth as a state holiday (although employees don’t get a paid day off, like July 4th.), as people mobilize in a concentrated effort to make it a national holiday, which has stalled in Congress. The only state that has yet to legally recognize Juneteenth as either a state or ceremonial holiday is South Dakota. Hawaii’s governor is likely to sign a bill formally acknowledging Emancipation Day since it passed in the state’s house and Senate, making it the 49th state to formally recognize the date. There were repeated efforts in the South Dakota Senate to at least acknowledge Juneteenth as a working holiday, but it was blocked in March by the House with a vote of 31-36. Last October, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Gov. Ralph Northam of Virginia, signed legislation declaring Juneteenth an observed state paid holiday in their respective states. Last month, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee also declared Juneteenth a state holiday in 2022. Meanwhile Illinois legislators approved a bill that would make Juneteenth a paid day off for all state employees and a school holiday.
Due to last year’s social unrest, along with calls for policing reforms and justice initiatives; many companies have taken action in marking Juneteenth as a company holiday, giving their staff paid time off. Corporations like Twitter and Square, a mobile payment company, Best Buy, the NFL, Target, and Nike have all publicly recognized Juneteenth last year.
Despite the whirlwind of legislation, online campaigns, and calls from senators and activists to make Juneteenth a national holiday, the bill continues to fall short on the congressional floor. The U.S. Senate passed a 2018 resolution designating June 19th as Juneteenth Independence Day Act,” but it still hasn’t reached the House. Fort Worth activist Opal Lee, a 94-year-old, long-time advocate of Juneteenth and sponsor of the Change.org petition for the cause (which gained over 1.5 million signatures), once again traveled to D.C. to propose a reintroduced bill that would appoint Juneteenth as a national holiday. In February, the act was reintroduced by congressional lawmakers, following the lead of Texas Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, who introduced a resolution to recognize Juneteenth as a federal holiday. This proposal garnered 200 co-sponsors in 2020. This year’s proposals were championed by Sen. Edward Markey (D-Mass.).
It is important for all African Americans and members of the diaspora to forever honor the lives and liberation of their ancestors. The unapologetic blackness, creativity, business leadership, wisdom, morale, and strength of the Black elders should resonate for generations; thereby sustaining the continued growth of Black people. Making sure Black stories are told is critical to preventing Black erasure from the American consciousness, which is a pinnacle form of systemic racism. Not only did Black people help build this country, but they inspired a cultural renaissance. Black contributions include the birth of many music genres (jazz, rock n’ roll, hip hop, and r&b), the construction of national monuments, the inception of many life-changing inventions (i.e. blood banks, automatic gear shifts, potato chips, three-light traffic lights, refrigerated trucks, gas masks, and protected mailboxes just to name a few), superb cuisine, countless sports achievements, political prominence, business prowess, and global cultural influence. Black people are trendsetters. Federally recognizing Juneteenth, compounded with including it in our school curriculum, is one of the numerous ways this country can correct the egregious acts committed against Black people who reside in its borders. Considering the tremendous social needs Black people still face as a result of the legacy of slavery, the race wealth gap, Jim Crow, mass incarceration, and police brutality; nationally commemorating Juneteenth is the smallest gesture this country could provide.
Juneteenth celebrations: Let the fun begin!
Juneteenth should be more than just paid time off, you can participate in the jubilant celebrations by attending street fairs, parades, and concerts with Black families and friends. If you live in the Atlanta area, event planners are arranging a parade and music festival at Olympic Park. Similar events are scheduled in Los Angeles, Detroit, Chicago, and Maryland. Of course, the most gallant festivities happen in Juneteenth’s Texas birthplace. Given the holiday’s Southern roots, barbecues are celebratory staples topped off with strawberry sodas and red velvet cake, This color is viewed as “a symbol of ingenuity and resilience in bondage.” There is also the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation (NJOF). Founded in 1994, the group devised a flag incorporating the same red, white, and blue colors seen in the U.S. flag, emphasizing the fact that the formerly enslaved were and are Americans. The official flag made for the holiday in 1997, has a rich set of features, with red and blue striped sections separated by an arc that represents broad horizons and opportunity. The large white star serves as a staunch centerpiece, “bursting with new freedom throughout the land [of Texas],” according to the NJOF site. The star signifies Texas as the Lone Star state and symbolizes the freedom of African Americans across all 50 states. The date of significance, “June 19,” was etched into the flag in 2007. People also rep the popular Pan-Africanist flag encouraged by Jamacian activist, Marcus Garvey. You can’t honor Black Independence Day without a nod to Black liberation and freedom!
For non-Black allies, you can embrace and honor Black history and culture through learning about major African-American firsts, rereading the Emancipation Proclamation, supporting Black-owned businesses, reading Black literature, or catching a movie directed by a Black filmmaker. Keep in mind these things shouldn’t just be happening on Juneteenth, but every day. The true meaning of being an advocate and ally is continuous support. As for African Americans, celebrating Juneteenth is just another reason why we are excellence personified.