Written by Sha Williams-Hinnant and Tamar Myers-Moffatt
As demonstrators across America continue to fight to liberate black and brown people through legislative action against systemic racism, the country is getting ready to celebrate the 156th anniversary of one of its earliest liberation moments called “Juneteenth”. This is a combination of June and the nineteenth and it marks the day in 1865 when a group of enslaved people in Galveston, Texas, finally learned that they were free from the institution of slavery. Unfortunately, this was almost two and a half years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation; the Civil War was still going on, and when it ended, Union Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger traveled to Texas and issued an order stating that all enslaved people were free. This established a new relationship between “former masters and slaves” as “employer and hired labor.” As much as Juneteenth represents freedom, it also represents how emancipation was tragically delayed for enslaved people in the deepest reaches of the Confederacy.
Liberation commemorated for 155 years but not as a public holiday
Newly freed black people celebrated the first Juneteenth in 1866 to commemorate liberation. They celebrated with singing spirituals, reading scripture and sharing food as they took pride in their progress. But a century and a half later, Juneteenth is still not taught in most schools, nor is the event a federal holiday despite decades of pushing from activists. In 1980, Texas became the first state to declare Juneteenth an official holiday. In 2020, Washington, DC and nearly every state observed the day and some recognized it as a holiday.
The calls for Juneteenth to be a national holiday have grown stronger amid a climate seeking justice for Blacks. Coinciding with the worldwide protests against systemic racism, and the mounting cultural pressure to reckon with America’s racist history, Juneteenth continues to receive increased attention in 2021.
Church grounds, the common site for the festivities
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. Often church grounds were the site for the celebration. Eventually, as African Americans became land owners, land was donated and dedicated for these festivities. In Mexia, Texas, Booker T. Washington Park attracted as many as 20,000 African Americans during the course of a week.
Modern Juneteenth promotes self-development and respect for all cultures
Today, Juneteenth is enjoying a phenomenal growth rate within communities and organizations throughout the country. Institutions such as the Smithsonian, the Henry Ford Museum and others have begun sponsored Juneteenth-centered activities promoting appreciation of African American history and culture.
Juneteenth celebrates African American freedom and achievement, while encouraging continuous self-development and respect for all cultures. As it takes on a more national, symbolic and even global perspective, the events of 1865 in Texas are not forgotten, for all of the roots tie back to this fertile soil from which a national day of pride is growing.
The future of Juneteenth looks bright as the number of cities and states creating Juneteenth committees continues to increase. Respect and appreciation for all of our differences grow out of exposure and working together. Getting involved and supporting Juneteenth celebrations creates new bonds of friendship and understanding among us. This indeed brightens our future – and that is the Spirit of Juneteenth.