At the end of the American Civil War in April 1865, news of the South’s surrender and the newly freed status of Black Americans travelled slowly, and many remained enslaved, particularly in isolated areas. It wasn’t until nearly two months later, on June 19, 1865, that the Emancipation Proclamation was read aloud to slaves in Galveston, Texas. This marked the last–and most remote–of the confederate states to recognize the end of slavery.
Juneteenth, also known as Freedom Day, Jubilee Day, and Cel-Liberation Day, commemorates this moment, and has evolved into a celebration of African-American history, heritage, and culture, heralded as “America’s second Independence Day.” It is important to note, however, that the Proclamation did not apply to slave-holding border states in the Union at the time, where slaves didn’t see freedom until the ratification of the 13th amendment in December 1865. This does not diminish the importance of June 19, which also honors the lives of those who did not reach freedom.
The first Juneteenth celebration took place one year later in 1866 in Texas, but quickly spread to other parts of the South, and eventually reached commercial status in the 1920s and ‘30s. Food was often the center of the festival, people dressed in their Sunday best, and activities such as baseball, fishing, and rodeos were held. Former slaves and their descendants of slaves would often make a pilgrimage to Galveston, Texas. For historian Mitch Kachune, the purpose of celebrating the end of slavery is three-fold: “to celebrate, to educate, and to agitate.”
New iterations of the holiday have emerged over time as national politics and culture shift, and celebrations have become rooted in the fight for Black freedom. At the height of the Civil Rights Movement in the ‘60s, Black American youth were particularly called on to use their voices and speak up in favor of racial equality. At the Atlanta civil rights campaign, student demonstrators donned Juneteenth Freedom pins.
At the end of the 20th century, grassroots activists and historians demanded the focus of Juneteenth be shifted from policymakers in Washington, D.C. to the Black Americans who suffered at the hands of white slave owners in the confederate South. Instead, they argued, Juneteenth should celebrate modern Black culture, such as in the 1977 Blues Spectacular music festival, which featured artists of the day including blues extraordinaire Muddy Waters.
Juneteenth celebrations today tend to be local, and the holiday has taken on a multicultural tone in many places. There still remain long-standing traditional celebrations such as public readings of the Emancipation Proclamation, the singing of traditional songs such as “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” and readings from trailblazing Black writers like Maya Angelou. Communities host picnics, rodeos, cookouts, and parades.
Although the holiday is recognized in 47 out of the 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia as a state holiday, Congress has yet to declare Juneteenth a national day of observance. Even so, in most states that celebrate Juneteenth, the recognition is purely ceremonial as opposed to state-mandated. Only a few states, including Texas, Virginia, and most recently New York, have issued Juneteenth an official state holiday.
Modern day activists are pushing for federal recognition. According to historian Karlos Hill, Juneteenth reminds the country “how freedom and justice in the U.S. has always been delayed for Black people.” It came years after the Proclamation, and Black Americans continued to face threats to their freedom in the aftermath of the Civil War, with the rise of Jim Crow laws.
In an era still defined by police brutality, racial discrimination, and senseless acts of violence committed against Black Americans, Juneteenth has the potential to mean something different for the country. National commemoration of the holiday would, according to Hill, reacquaint white Americans in particular with the 250-plus year history of slavery in the United States, which is often miscast and misunderstood. Especially with the current global support of the Black Lives Matter movement, it is important to acknowledge the origins of the holiday and stand in solidarity with what it signifies.
Juneteenth has a rich history that celebrates Blackness and continues to push for racial equality and justice. Though much progress has been made, the holiday also signifies that there is much work to be done.END
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createdAt:Fri, 12 Jun 2020 17:41:04 +0000