Juneteenth is the oldest nationally celebrated commemoration of the ending of slavery in the United States. Dating back to 1865, it was on June 19 that the Union soldiers, led by Major General Gordon Granger, landed at Galveston, Texas with news that the war had ended and enslaved Africans were now free. The news of emancipation took two and a half years after President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation—which had become official January 1, 1863. The Emancipation Proclamation had little impact on Texans due to the minimal number of Union troops to enforce the new Executive Order. However, with the surrender of General Lee in April of 1865, and the arrival of General Granger’s regiment, the forces were finally strong enough to influence and overcome the resistance.
Later attempts to explain this two-and-a-half-year delay in receipt of this important news have yielded several versions that have been handed down through the years. Often told is the story of a messenger who was murdered on his way to Texas with the news of freedom. Another is that the news was deliberately withheld by enslavers to maintain the labor force on the plantations. And still another is that federal troops waited for the slave owners to reap the benefits of one last cotton harvest before going to Texas to enforce the Emancipation Proclamation. All . . . or none of these versions could be true. Certainly, for some, President Lincoln’s authority over the rebellious states was in question. Whatever the reasons, conditions in Texas remained status quo well beyond what was statutory.
Recounting the memories of that great day in June of 1865 and its festivities would serve as motivation as well as a release from the growing pressures encountered in their new territories. The celebration of June 19 was coined “Juneteenth” and grew with more participation from descendants. The Juneteenth celebration was a time for reassuring each other, for praying and for gathering remaining family members. Juneteenth continued to be highly revered in Texas decades later, with many of the formerly enslaved and their descendants making an annual pilgrimage back to Galveston on this date.
Juneteenth Festivities and Food
People singing spirituals like “Jubilee” were central to Juneteenth Celebrations. One of the song’s verses, “Shout my children you are free/my God brought you liberty,” attests to the freedom conscious culture of Afro-America. Additionally, “Jubilee” was performed in conjunction with the ring shout, an ecstatic counterclockwise dance transplanted from Africa.
Certain foods became popular and subsequently synonymous with Juneteenth celebrations, such as strawberry soda pop. More traditional and just as popular was the barbecuing, through which Juneteenth participants could share in the spirit and aromas that their ancestors—the newly emancipated African Americans—would have experienced during their ceremonies. Hence, the barbecue pit is often established as the center of attention at Juneteenth celebrations.
Juneteenth And Society
In the early years, little interest existed outside the African American community in participation in the celebrations. In some cases, there was openly exhibited resistance by barring the use of public property for the festivities. Most of the festivities found themselves out in rural areas around rivers and creeks that could provide for additional activities such as fishing, horseback riding, and barbecues. Often church grounds were the site for such activities. Eventually, as African Americans became landowners, land was donated by African American landowners and dedicated for Juneteenth festivities.
Juneteenth Celebrations Decline
Economic and cultural forces led to a decline in Juneteenth activities and participants beginning in the early 1900s. In lieu of traditional home and family-taught practices, classroom and textbook education began to focus less on the lives of the formerly enslaved, which stifled the interest of the youth. Classroom textbooks proclaimed Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863 as the date signaling the ending of slavery—and mentioned little or nothing of the impact of General Granger’s arrival on June 19.
Furthermore, the Great Depression forced many people off the farms and into the cities to find work. In those urban environments, employers were less eager to grant leaves to celebrate Juneteenth. Thus, unless June 19 fell on a weekend or holiday, there were very few participants available. July 4 was already the established Independence holiday and a rise in patriotism steered more toward this celebration.
The Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s yielded both positive and negative results for the Juneteenth celebrations. While it pulled many African American youth away from Juneteenth celebrations and into the struggle for racial equality, many linked these struggles to the historical struggles of their ancestors. This was evidenced by student demonstrators involved in the Atlanta civil rights campaign in the early 1960s, who wore Juneteenth freedom buttons. Again in 1968, Juneteenth received another strong resurgence through the Poor People’s March to Washington, DC Rev. Ralph Abernathy’s call for people of all races, creeds, economic levels, and professions to come to Washington to show support for the poor. Many of these attendees returned home and initiated Juneteenth celebrations in areas previously lacking such activities. In fact, two of the largest Juneteenth celebrations founded after this March are now held in Milwaukee and Minneapolis.
Texas Blazes The Trail
On January 1, 1980, Juneteenth became an official Texas state holiday through the efforts of Al Edwards, an African American state legislator. The successful passage of this bill marked Juneteenth as the first emancipation celebration granted official state recognition. Edwards has since actively sought to spread the observance of Juneteenth across America.
Juneteenth In Modern Times
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 sponsoring Juneteenth-centered activities. In recent years, local and national Juneteenth organizations have arisen to take their place alongside older organizations—all with the mission to promote and cultivate knowledge and appreciation of African American history, resistance, resilience and culture.
Juneteenth today 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 Galveston, Texas are not forgotten and the roots tie back to this fertile soil from which a National Day of Pride is growing. Indeed in 2021, a law was passed making Juneteenth a national holiday, effective in 2022.
This article is adapted from a talk given at Clark-Lindsey Village on June 17, 2022.
Aaron Ammons was elected Champaign County Clerk in 2018. In 2021, the offices of County Clerk and Recorder were merged, making Aaron the first Clerk and Recorder. Prior to that he was an Urbana alderman and co-founder of a grassroots organization, Champaign Urbana Citizens for Peace & Justice (CUCPJ). Aaron worked at the University of Illinois for 17 years and served as President of SEIU Local 73 Chapter 119. Aaron is very passionate about family, democracy, voting rights, citizenship, and economic and social justice, and he loves gardening, fishing, and basketball.
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