June 19th. The day after my sister’s birthday. A reminder that summer is going by way too fast. For some, it is just another day. As of recently, it has garnered a little more significance within my life. I am preparing to attend my third Essence Music Festival, and have been pondering why it is held on 4th of July weekend. Now, I understand the fact that it is easier for those with finite paid time off to attend, but as one of the largest black events within the United States, it seems awkward to have it on a weekend celebrating a freedom we were not granted as well. In his speech to Congress July 5, 1852, well before the Emancipation Proclamation, Frederick Douglass stated,
“What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer, a day that reveals to him, more than other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham, your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity…”
June 19th is known as Juneteenth, a holiday. It is hailed as the day that the last remaining slaves in Texas were notified that they were free. Major General Gordon Granger rode into Galveston, Texas June 19, 1865 with this order-
General Order #3
“The people 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 personal rights and rights of property, between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them, become that between employer and hired labor. The freed are advised to remain 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.”
I could not imagine how shocking this news must have been at this time. To wake up as a slave and all of a sudden, your title, your reason for existence (from the stand point of your role in society) has changed. A total 180. I’m sure that some thought this was a joke. Or had to ask the General and his soldiers if the words he was saying applied to them. I am sure that the initial shock possibly turned into anger when they became aware that they have been technically free for over 2 years. Let me run down the history:
- September 22, 1862 : Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation by President Abraham Lincoln submitted
- January 1, 1863: Emancipation Proclamation in effect
- January 3, 1865: 13th Amendment passed by the House
- December 6, 1865: 13th Amendment ratified
The 13th Amendment is the first of three Reconstruction Amendments adopted after the Civil War. Let’s take a look at this amendment:
“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”
I can see how Ava DuVernay’s documentary, 13th, comes into play here. There are always loopholes to get what you want, I see. But I digress.
I believe Juneteenth should, and does on a smaller scale, get the recognition it deserves. Some communities have Juneteenth celebrations, but they are nowhere near the scale of 4th of July. I can see that we are no longer slaves, but are far from completely free. So, I realize that this is going to take some work. The National Juneteenth Observance Foundation, founded and chaired by Rev. Ronald Meyers is working on making June 19th a federal holiday, but not a paid government holiday like Columbus Day (which is a whole other issue in itself). I believe this type of recognition would assist in giving this day more impact.
Texas was the first state to make June 19th an official holiday on January 1, 1980. This effort was led by Rep. Al Edwards of Houston. To date, 41 states recognize June 19th as a holiday, including Washington D.C. and Rhode Island.
After doing some research, I realized that Juneteenth celebrations were big things in the past. Whole communities would get together in their best outfits and bring their best dish and the entire family would be catered to. Communities would come together to buy land to have the celebrations, because they would sometimes be met with opposition when having their celebration. The black church would again be the place where the community could gather together. Games, food for all, music was on the agenda. Barbecue was popular at most, if not all, Juneteenth events. Strawberry soda is said to be synonymous with the celebration (no wonder I love it so much). Again, dress was an important element. There were laws on the books in many areas that prohibited or limited the dressing of the enslaved, so this was an opportunity to show up and show out! During the initial celebrations, former slaves would throw their ragged clothes in creeks and rivers. Then they would adorn themselves in fancier clothing that they had taken from the plantation masters.
As a young black woman, I believe it would be more beneficial, especially during complex and trying times like these, to honor our heritage and strength our communities through knowing our history and sharing that with the world. SO many of these facts I have placed in this post I did not know myself. I felt so naïve and honestly, slightly ashamed that I did not so much of this history. But when you know better, you do better, right?
So, what do we do now? I was out-of-town when the majority of my areas Juneteenth events were taking place, but I plan on attending next year. I am hoping this post has educated you and given you a different perspective on what could just be another day for you.
What small thing do you think you can do to commemorate Juneteenth? Sound off in the comments below.