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Juneteenth: A Short History

Cordelia Blanchard 3 weeks ago

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Until recent events brought it into the spotlight, many white people had not heard of Juneteenth. That this holiday is little-known displays the ongoing power of white supremacist culture in America. We wanted to shine a light on this important national celebration that should, indeed, be revered by all true Americans.

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What is Juneteenth?

Observed on June 19th each year, Juneteenth is the oldest nationally celebrated holiday commemorating the end of slavery. On June 19, 1865, two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation and six months after the passage of the 13th Amendment, Union soldiers led by General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas. There he shared the news that the Civil War had ended and that enslaved people were now free. He proclaimed, “The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free.”

General Gordon Granger

General Gordon Granger (source)

We must note the long delay between the passage of the Emancipation Proclamation and the announcement in Texas. While the executive order became official on January 1, 1863, there were few union soldiers in Texas to enforce the order. It was not until Lee’s surrender in 1865 and the arrival of General Granger’s troops that there were sufficient troops in Texas to enforce the new law. Thus, June 19th became the day slavery officially ended in the United States.

Alternative Theories About the Belated News

There are many alternative stories explaining the long delay between the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation and the true end of slavery in the United States. One such tale describes a messenger with news of newfound freedom who was murdered en route to Texas. Yet others describe that the news was deliberately withheld by enslavers. Also told, is the theory that federal troops wanted to allow enslavers to reap one last cotton harvest before enforcing the new law. Whichever is fact or fiction, the sad truth remains that slavery remained commonplace in Texas long after freedom had been declared by the federal government.

Early Juneteenth celebration

A Juneteenth celebration in 1900 (source)

Harsh Realities

Despite the newfound declared freedom, many of the 250,000 enslaved people in Texas were still denied their freedom, as enslaved labor was their enslavers’ main source of capital. Many plantation owners decided to delay announcing freedom until after that year’s harvest or until a government official came to bear the news themselves. Worse still, many enslaved Americans faced the prospect of being hunted and killed after they left the plantation, and other obstacles to freedom remained, even after Juneteenth.

contemporary Juneteenth celebration

Celebrating Black history & culture (source)

Celebrating Anyway

Despite these harsh realities and the slow churn toward freedom, formerly enslaved Americans in Galveston chose to celebrate June 19th as the true day of liberation in a tradition that soon spread across the nation. However, it was not until 1980 that Texas declared Juneteenth to be an official holiday. Worse still, it has yet to be ratified as a national holiday.*

Juneteenth is fundamentally a day of celebration and jubilation, yet it is also focused on reckoning with our past and thus education and self-reflection. There are many ways people celebrate this holiday. Some participate in outdoor group sports, such as baseball and rodeos, while others barbecue and gather friends and family together. For moments of reflection guest speakers are often called upon to share stories and knowledge, and prayer services are similarly common.

Food is typically abundant, reflecting the tradition of preparing special, historically hard-to-find dishes such as beef, pork and lamb. With food’s ability to facilitate community building, the barbecue has become a central feature of Juneteenth celebrations. Just as food has been a central feature of Juneteenth, so, too, did attire become an important aspect of observance early on and remains so to this day. During slavery, there were laws that regulated the ways in which enslaved people could dress, preventing them from exploring their culture and heritage through clothing. After June 19, 1865, it was reported that many of the formerly enslaved threw their rags into rivers and streams and instead donned clothing taken from their enslavers.

Congresswoman Sheila Jackson

Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee (source)

Juneteenth 2020

With all of the social unrest over ongoing systemic racism and extrajudicial killings of Black Americans by the police, this year’s Juneteenth takes on special significance. Texas Congressperson Sheila Jackson Lee has introduced a bill to recognize the historical significance of Juneteenth each year she has been in office. This year is no different; however, in 2020 the bill finds itself with over 200 co-sponsors. Additionally, she plans this week to introduce a bill to make Juneteenth a federal holiday.

This year in Austin, events and activities surrounding Juneteenth abound, despite the Covid-19 pandemic. For more information on some of the events happening tomorrow, look at our roundup of events.

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*If you are interested in petitioning for Juneteenth to be recognized as a national holiday, see this petition or read more about these resurgent efforts here or here.

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Sources:
“History of Juneteenth” (https://www.juneteenth.com/history.htm)

“Exploring the History of Juneteenth, a Day of Celebration and Reflection” (https://news.temple.edu/news/2020-06-17/exploring-history-juneteenth-day-celebration-and-reflection)

“What Happened After the First Juneteenth” (https://time.com/3914574/juneteenth/)

Header Image Source:
Juneteenth celebration in 1900 at Eastwoods Park. (Austin History Center (via NMAAHC))

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