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What Is Juneteenth?
While slavery is not a new topic to many, the holiday of Juneteenth is a day that most are still learning to understand and celebrate. Dating back to June 19, 1865, Juneteenth was the first holiday to honor the day enslaved African Americans in Galveston, Texas, were declared free. Many centuries later, participants all over the United States and beyond call a stance for remembrance, acknowledging more than just those freed in 1865.
Commemorating the end of slavery as a whole, Juneteenth was initially dedicated to the exclusive event mentioned above. Since recent events of Black Lives Matter, nationwide protests, and the increasing deaths of black lives through police brutality (including George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery), however, it’s now a national call of independence.
What Is Juneteenth?
By definition and origin, Juneteenth was first proclaimed June 19, 1865, when previous slaves in Galveston, Texas, were declared freedom. Because slavery was not a new concept to African Americans, this day not only represented independence and political liberty but a new way of life.
According to the Headquarters District of Texas, Galveston, June 19, 1865, the official report noted the following:
“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 personal 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.”
When Major Gen. Gordon Granger, the issuer of the above order, gave this address, he did not realize the domino effect it would make on slavery and freedom at the time. As command of the Department of Texas, he felt that his power would do little in reporting to the executive head. Especially because Abraham Lincoln had passed and the 13th amendment abolishing slavery was on its way to ratification. However, Granger’s announcement put into effect the Emancipation Proclamation issued two years earlier, in 1863.
Juneteenth was born, combining the month of June and the nineteenth day on which this declaration was made. It is also referred to as Juneteenth Independence Day, Freedom Day, or Independence Day, not to be confused with The Fourth of July.
How is Juneteenth celebrated?
Over the years of its development, Juneteenth began to incorporate prayer celebrations, family meetings, and city parades, bringing families of all sorts together to remember this day. The New York Times (2021) even notes that some former enslaved African Americans would make their way back to Galveston to carpe diem.
However, it was not until 1872 that the holiday took off in success and wide popularity. After ten former slaves formed a group, purchased 10 acres of land, and founded Emancipation Park in Houston, this space held celebrations and inspired those worldwide.
Today, while many celebrate with cookouts, food, dining out, or talking with friends, more significant events like parades and city festivals are held in monumental cities such as Atlanta or Washington. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, in-person celebrations like these were held off last year.
What Makes Juneteenth So Important?
Since an ever-increasing development in Black Lives Matter campaigns and protests have gone global, it appears that Juneteenth is not a thing of the past but an essential and relevant holiday of the present and future.
This year, in 2021, Galveston continues to lead by example and hopes that this year’s celebration will start a trend many will continue to follow for decades. Dedicating a 5,000 square-foot mural entitled “Absolute Equality,” the city will host a parade, picnic, and additional events. While some activities have been reduced to accommodate COVID-19 protocols still in place, the holiday made strides to become a national one. Juneteenth is now the 11th national holiday and the 2nd to honor freedom since the law passed.
At a time when riots, liberations for freedom, and racial tensions are at an all-time high, it is no surprise that Juneteenth is gaining leverage across the United States to become one of the newly celebrated and most anticipated holidays.
In 2020, President Donald Trump announced a rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, after the initial COVID-19 pandemic shut down. Drawing some criticism, Tulsa was the site of one of the country’s worst episodes of racial segregation and violence in 1921. On Black Wall Street, white mobs attacked this wealthy Black business district, destroying more than 1,200 homes and nearly 300 people. Shortly after his announcement, Trump changed the date to accommodate safety precautions and respect for individuals immediately impacted by said event.
Despite this critique, Juneteenth, 2021 represents much more than Texas’ independence from freedom. It marks a time, place, and season where individuals were seen as equal, and the entire world aimed to respect that no matter their color, race, or gender.
Globally, Juneteenth shows approval and celebration for this event. In New York, Friday will kick off a Three-Day-Summit featuring performers, health and wellness screenings, educational activities, and more to between 5,000 and 20,000 people. 2019 hosted 5,000 in-person, but 2020 recorded 20,000 people in attendance at the virtual event. Washington, D.C., on the other hand, will host their history significance presentations at the Smithsonian.
Beyond significant events, Juneteenth invites participants to look beyond themselves and appreciate the freedom they now have or fought to achieve. It’s a time for thoughtful reflection, discussion, application, and thanksgiving. Suggested activities include educating oneself on the movement through podcasts, books, videos, and events or supporting African businesses through purchases or donations.
Throughout the decades, individuals like Martin Luther King Jr., Harriet Tubman, Abraham Lincoln, Maya Angelou, and Frederick Douglass fought for African American equality. Today, leading activists for civil human rights and justice attempt to do the same.
Frederick Douglass, a leader in the abolitionist movement, once said, “I prayed for freedom for twenty years, but received no answer until I prayed with my legs,” and that’s an answer we’re all searching for but striving towards today.