Today is Juneteenth and it is a celebration for African-Americans to come together to celebrate the end of slavery.  There will be music, food and fireworks on this day, which I challenged myself to delve deeper into our cultural history in America.   In this essay on Juneteenth, I will be discussing the origins of this day, how African-Americans celebrated it throughout American history and what people are doing today to engage in the celebration.  There will be old African spirituals highlighted throughout this essay.

The importance of Juneteenth is to celebrate this pivotal role in American history.  It is a day that paved the way for further struggles for African-Americans that still continue to this day from Reconstruction to the Jim Crow laws to the struggle for the 1964 and 1968 Civil Rights Act to even today where there are racial disparities thanks to the 1994 crime bill, which brought a disproportional amount of African-Americans to jail to the murder of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Juneteenth or Emancipation Day is celebrated among African-Americans, those of Caribbean descent and South American descent.  The document was enacted on January 1st, 1863 via executive order by President Abraham Lincoln, it states the following:

“Whereas on the twenty-second day of September, in the year of our Lord one-thousand eight hundred and sixty-two, a proclamation was issued by the President of the United States, containing, among other things, the following to wit:

“That on the first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of the State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever, free;, and the Executive government of the United States, including the military and naval authority thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons, and will do no act or acts to repress such persons, or any of them, in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom”.

Those words right there ended slavery, or did it?  The Texas Confederate Army didn’t abide by the Emancipation Proclamation.  In April 1865, Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered at the Appomattox Courthouse.  Even after the issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation and the Confederacy surrendering to the Union to signify the end of the Civil War, slaveholders in Texas refused to acknowledge the defeat of the Confederacy.  At this time, it was easy for the slaveholders to keep their slaves.  The Civil War barely touched Texas during this time, therefore enforcing the Emancipation Proclamation on the slaveholders was difficult because there was still a Confederate blockade.  As a result, slaveholders from Louisiana and Mississippi took their slaves to Texas in exchange for goods and money.  Therefore, tens of thousands of slaves were added.  It took Union brigadier general Gordon Granger to head to Galveston, Texas stepping onto Ashton Villa, which was the former headquarters of the Texas Confederate Army, and informed the slaves were free on June 19th, 1865.   Former slave Pierce Harper stated the following, “When peace come they read the ‘Mancipation Law to the cullud people.  The freed slaves spent that night singin’ and shoutin’.  They wasn’t slaves no more.”

The first celebration took place in Juneteenth 1866, people sang this song:

These celebrations throughout the rest of the 19th century weren’t what we think of celebrations today.  We think of celebrations today as having libations, firewooks and food and gathering with friends.  African-Americans during Juneteenth would come together to discuss their civic rights, including their struggles for voting in the election process and examining broader implications for citizenship.  Jim Crow laws such as the Grandfather Clause, poll taxes and impossible literacy tests were required in some states for African-Americans to vote.  They would also use this day to pool their money together to collectively purchase land so they could have a piece of the “American dream”.  Here is a video of students from Harvard trying to take the Louisiana literacy test:

During the beginning of the 20th century, segregation due to the Supreme Court ruling of Plessy v. Ferguson became law in the United States.  African-Americans would go to separate schools, businesses were segregated and even public drinking fountains were segregated.  The intent of the ruling was to declare that “separate was equal”, but the implementation of Plessy v. Ferguson couldn’t be further from the truth.  Education wasn’t nearly as quality, service was poor in businesses, and African-Americans through the Jim Crow laws saw disenfranchisement being implemented in the political process.  Nativism became on the rise in America during World War I.  Lynching and waves or racial violence took place between 1919 and 1921, including the horrific Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 which burned down Black Wall Street and Red Summer, which Woodrow Wilson HIMSELF said, “the American Negro returning from abroad would be our greatest medium in conveying Bolshevism in America”.  This caused white on black violence to skyrocket.  Will Brown was lynched in Omaha.  Eugene Williams was stoned and drowned by whites for swimming in a whites only part of the water.  Six African-American World War I veterans were shot at a homecoming celebration by angry whites in Norfolk, Virginia.  In large part, the dozens of incidents that occurred during Red Summer and Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 suppressed the Juneteenth celebrations until end of World War II, along with the Great Depression and World War II.

1940’s and 1950’s saw Juneteenth celebrations added to appeals for equal rights.  They honored black veterans who served in Spanish-American War and World War I.  The signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was equated with the Emancipation Proclamation.  The 1968 Poor People’s March called for economic justice.  Today, we see Juneteenth being celebrated for different reasons.  Celebrations all across the country are celebrating Juneteenth as a day to protest police brutality and racial disparities against African-Americans in the law.  People are also celebrating today as a sense of pride and a sense of community.  Some are celebrating by educating themselves further on this cause.  May this day be a day of remembrance, celebration and a continued fight against racial injustice and economic injustice in this country.

Sources:  “When Peace Come”: Teaching The Emancipation Proclamation and Juneteenth” by Rebecca Cummings Richardson, Venita Dillard-Allen, and Shennette Garrett-Scott

Wikipedia on Tulsa Race Massacre and Red Summer

YouTube video Louisiana Literacy Test

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