Juneteenth: An African-American celebration of freedom and culture
JASMIN K. WILLIAMS Amsterdam News Staff | 6/20/2013, 1:05 p.m.
June 19 is known as Freedom Day, Jun-Jun, Emancipation Day and Juneteenth. This year marks the 148th anniversary of the oldest known celebration of the end of slavery.
It was on this date in 1865 that Union soldiers, led by Major Gen. Gordon Granger, made their way to Texas, where the last of the nation's slaves were held. He announced in Galveston that the Civil War had ended and they were finally free. President Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation had become official more than two and a half years earlier on Jan. 1, 1863, but Texas' slaves were the last to know.
Lincoln's Emancipation was issued as the country was in the throes of the Civil War, leaving few soldiers available to "enforce" the president's executive order. Southern slave holders were not ready to release their "property," but with the surrender of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee officially ending the war, and the arrival of Granger's regiment, Texas was forced to finally free its slaves. But why did it take more than two and a half years?
There are three theories that have been handed down over the years. The most popular of which is that a messenger sent to deliver the news was murdered on the way to Texas. But why would a single messenger be sent to deliver such an important order?
Another theory is that the news was deliberately withheld to maintain the workforce on Texas plantations. Still another story is that federal troops purposefully sat on the news to allow plantation owners to harvest one last cotton crop before enforcing Lincoln's executive order.
Granger read General Order Number 3:
"The people of Texas are informed that in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere."
The newly freed slaves were overjoyed while their former masters were in shock. Even with nowhere to go, they quickly left the plantations. Many headed North to start new lives while others headed to the neighboring states of Louisiana, Arkansas and Oklahoma.
Juneteenth marked the celebration of long-awaited freedom and would become one of our most joyous and important cultural events with many elements of those early celebrations still a part of our modern-day festivities.
The Juneteenth flag consists of a rectangle. The lower part of the rectangle is red and the upper part is blue and it has a solid white, five-pointed star at its center. The star is surrounded by a white outline of a 12-pointed star. The Juneteenth flag is often displayed with the United States flag to symbolize that slavery is illegal.
GETTING THE PARTY STARTED
The main focus of the Juneteenth celebration is on education and self-improvement, but what's a party without family, fun and food?
Everyone brought a dish to share, but you couldn't have a Juneteenth celebration without strawberry soda and a barbecue pit full of pork, lamb and beef. In Texas and some other Southern states, the traditional drink is Big Red soda. This variety of cream soda is a sweet soft drink flavored with orange and lemon oils and vanilla. It is available in different flavors and with or without caffeine and sugar.
Besides the chance to relax and catch up with friends and family, there were a host of activities to enjoy like horseback riding and fishing. Juneteenth was also an occasion to dress up. During the early celebrations, former slaves threw their ragged clothes into the creeks and rivers and put on new garments taken from their former plantations.
Juneteenth celebrations were usually held in rural areas or on church grounds. Eventually, as Blacks became land owners, special areas were dedicated for the celebrations. One of the first land purchases for Juneteenth was organized by the Rev. Jack Yates. This former slave and pastor organized a fundraiser to purchase Emancipation Park in Houston, Texas. In 1898, Booker T. Washington Park in Mexia, Texas, became an official Juneteenth site, with some 20,000 people visiting in one week, making it one of the state's largest celebrations.
Juneteenth remained popular and continued to grow, but by the early 1900s there was a decline, mostly due to economic and cultural changes. Hard times forced many Blacks to head North to find work. Urban life made it hard to celebrate unless the date fell on a weekend. The importance of Granger's announcement on June 19 became buried even deeper as July 4 was established as the national day of independence.
The Poor People's Campaign in Washington, D.C., led to a renewed interest in Juneteenth. Many of those who attended the historic march returned home eager to embrace Black culture. Juneteenth celebrations began happening in places where they never had before. Two of the largest such observances are now held in Milwaukee and Minneapolis. In 1980, Juneteenth became an official state holiday in Texas, thanks to the efforts of Democratic Sen. Al Edwards. Today, Juneteenth is celebrated throughout the country as a full or partial state holiday, with local and national organizers picking up the mantle of promoting African-American history and culture. There is a campaign to make Juneteenth a national holiday.
Sen. Malcolm Smith was joined by the New York Senate in passing a resolution calling on Gov. Andrew Cuomo to formally proclaim June 19 as Juneteenth Day in New York.
On Tuesday June 19, take a moment to remember our ancestors and the price they paid for the freedoms we enjoy today. Remember our great history of culture, courage and triumph. Juneteenth is a day to celebrate with family, friends, culture and community.
- LOOK IT UP: Use the Internet or other reference source to learn more about Juneteenth and one of its earliest champions, the Rev. Jack Yates. Learn more about the events mentioned in this week's "Today in Black History" feature.
- TALK ABOUT IT: Discuss the importance of the events of June 19, 1865, in Galveston, Texas, and the concerns of newly freed slaves more than two and a half years after the emancipation.
- PLAN YOUR OWN: Have a Juneteenth celebration of your own with your classmates. You may want to skip the strawberry soda, but a healthy strawberry smoothie or bowls of fresh strawberries are a great alternative. Just as our ancestors did, be sure to include plenty of good food and cultural activities in your festivities. From the description and photo featured in today's lesson, create your own Juneteenth flag.
This Week in Black History
- June 11, 1930: Rep. Charles Rangel is born.
- June 13, 1868: Oscar J. Dunn, an ex-slave from New Orleans, becomes lieutenant governor of Louisiana, the highest executive office held by a Black at the time.
- June 14, 1938: "The Ethel Waters Show" was broadcast on NBC. The popular singer was the first Black to appear on television.
- June 15, 1877: Henry O. Flipper becomes the first Black to receive his degree at West Point.