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Excerpt: "First celebrated in 1865, the holiday marking slavery's end is both a painful reminder and a celebration of freedom fighters."

Celebrants dressed to hear speeches during a 1900 Juneteenth celebration in Texas. (photo: Austin Public)
Celebrants dressed to hear speeches during a 1900 Juneteenth celebration in Texas. (photo: Austin Public)

Juneteenth: Activists Across US Inherit a Historic Battle for Racial Justice

By Kenya Evelyn, Guardian UK

19 June 20

First celebrated in 1865, the holiday marking slavery’s end is both a painful reminder and a celebration of freedom fighters

his year, many Juneteenth events have been revamped as virtual or cancelled altogether as the coronavirus pandemic disproportionately threatens the African American community the holiday represents, commemorating the end of slavery.

But with continuing protests against racism sparked by the police killing of George Floyd, calls for national police reforms during the celebration and federal recognition of the holiday are growing in urgency.

Organizers of the “I, too, am America: Juneteenth Rally for Justice” in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where Donald Trump postponed a campaign speech planned for the holiday, announced that the civil rights leader Al Sharpton would be the keynote speaker to “call for sweeping reforms within the Tulsa police department and nationwide”.

“Frustrations with watered-down national, state and local efforts disguised as reform have spurred increased calls to action,” organizer Sarah Gray of the Oklahoma Future Fund said in the news release.

As federal and state governments respond to the anti-racism protests nationwide, Dr Lopez Matthews of Howard University’s Moorland-Spingarn Library and Research Center said the present uprisings represented Black Americans’ continuing quest for equality, inherited from the Juneteenth’s original celebrants who fought for their freedom.

“African Americans were not just passive participants in their own liberation,” he said. “It was those African Americans who learned about the Emancipation Proclamation [in Texas] who essentially freed themselves, demanding their humanity and creating traditions to celebrate it long after.”

Combining the words “June” and “19th”, the holiday commemorates the anniversary of the day in 1865 when the Union army major general Gordon Granger read out Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation to remaining enslaved African Americans on a plantation in Galveston, Texas.

The proclamation had been signed by the president two years prior, in 1863.

Following the celebration’s first year, which included dancing, singing, prayers and readings of the Proclamation, themes of Black liberation remained a focal point of Juneteenth. Newly freed Black people gathered each year dressed in their finest to hear speeches, march, and participate in demonstrations – forming some of the earliest traditions that continue today.

That jubilation became a defiant symbol of freedom in a white society that sought to suppress it. Despite “each new segregation law” or “new textbook whitewashing the mid-20th century,”, the historian Dr Henry Louis Gates Jr wrote, Juneteenth largely migrated with the millions of Black Americans who left the south for the midwest and north-east.

“When whites forbade Blacks from using their public spaces, Black people gathered near rivers and lakes and eventually raised enough money to buy their own celebration sites,” he wrote.

Today, Juneteenth is recognized in 47 US states and the District of Columbia as an official state holiday or observance, with Texas becoming the first in 1980. But it had been informally celebrated primarily by African American communities since that day in 1865.

More than 200 official events commemorate Juneteenth in cities and towns all across the US and the world, with Milwaukee, Philadelphia and Buffalo home to the country’s three largest annual festivals.

Not every African American saw freedom from the reading of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, however. It did not apply to border states still in the Union at the time. Slaves in these areas weren’t liberated until the ratification of the 13th Amendment nearly six months later, on 18 December 1865.

That painful legacy can make the holiday one of sorrow or remembrance for the descendants of those who never saw freedom.

For Maranda York, an eighth-generation Texan, the holiday is a painful reminder of “Texas being last to consider [her] humanity”.

“It’s disrespectful to our history to not recognize that we weren’t all free until December of that year, according to our constitution,” she said.

York’s four-times-great-grandmother Malinda Dobbins came to Texas after being sold by a slave owner in Alabama just before Texas became a state. In Texas, plantation owners often hid the news of freedom following the Emancipation Proclamation.

“I cringe when we say holiday, because for some of us, it represents the lost ties of an oppressed generation. That’s something to be mourned,” she said.

While Matthews acknowledges the painful reality of anti-Black racism after slavery, he argues that dismissing the joyous nature of Juneteenth in which former slaves took part diminishes their powerful role in the fight for freedom.

“It takes away from the agency of African Americans who were freed, who recovered, built their own communities, institutions and their own societies that were then destroyed by the institution of racism that slavery left,” he said.

As protests and the coronavirus pandemic continue, Matthews says the spirit of Juneteenth makes it a fitting holiday for unprecedented times.

“African Americans have been protesting since we were brought to this country and that history is cyclical,” he said. “What we’re seeing today is just the modern manifestation of what we’ve always seen.”

From an informal, community celebration passed down through generations to a national jubilee, he said, “Juneteenth is as much a celebration of perseverance as it is of freedom, and that lives on in how we celebrate today.” your social media marketing partner
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