What is June 19th or “Juneteenth” and why is it so important?

Updated from June 2021.

June 19th or “Juneteenth” is a very important day in African American history. Juneteenth, or “Freedom Day” is the oldest nationally celebrated commemoration of the ending of slavery in the United States.

This holiday is considered the “longest running African-American holiday” and has been called “America’s second Independence Day.” It was on June 19, 1865, that Union soldiers, led by Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger, landed in Galveston, Texas with news that the war had ended and that all slaves were free.

On June 15, 2021, the U.S. Senate unanimously approved the bill that makes Juneteenth a legal public holiday. On June 17, 2021, President Biden signed into law Senate Bill 475 (S. 475) making “Juneteenth” a federal holiday. Because June 19 fell on a Saturday in 2021, the day was observed on Friday, June 18, 2021.

Ms. Opal Lee, the “Grandmother of Juneteenth,” was instrumental in having this day made a holiday.

“Making Juneteenth a federal holiday is a major step forward to recognize the wrongs of the past,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said in a statement, “but we must continue to work to ensure equal justice and fulfill the promise of the Emancipation Proclamation and our Constitution.”

Please note that 1865 was 2 ½ years after Pres. Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, which become official on January 1, 1863. The Emancipation Proclamation had little impact on Texans for several reasons.

First, there was a minimal number of Union troops available to enforce the new executive order in Texas and there were large crops that needed labor to harvest them. When Gen. Lee surrendered in April 1865, and the general’s regiment arrived where the forces were strong enough to influence and overcome the resistance of white slave owners. Just think – took 2 ½ years after the Emancipation Proclamation for ALL slaves to finally be free! That was cause for celebration and jubilation!

Realizing that they were finally free, many African Americans went north to “true freedom” while others desired to connect with their family members in neighboring states like Louisiana, Arkansas and Oklahoma to settle down. 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, praying and for gathering remaining family members together. Juneteenth continued to be highly revered in Texas decades later, with many former slaves and descendants making an annual pilgrimage back to Galveston on this date.

In the early years, little interest existed outside the African American community in participation in the celebrations. In some cases, there was outward resistance by barring the use of public property for the festivities.

Since African Americans were often prohibited from using public facilities for their celebrations, they often held their annual celebrations at their churches or out in rural areas around rivers and creeks that could provide for additional activities such as fishing, horseback riding and barbecues.

Eventually, as African Americans became landowners, land was donated and dedicated for these festivities.

One of the earliest documented land purchases in the name of Juneteenth was organized by Rev. Jack Yates. This fund-raising effort yielded $1,000 and the purchase of Emancipation Park in Houston. In Mexica, the local Juneteenth organization purchased Booker T. Washington Park, which had become the Juneteenth celebration site in 1898.

There are accounts of Juneteenth activities being interrupted and halted by white landowners demanding that their laborers return to work. However, it seems most allowed their workers the day off and some even made donations of food and money. For decades these annual celebrations flourished, growing continuously with each passing year. In Booker T. Washington Park, as many as 20,000 African Americans once flowed through during a week, making the celebration one of the state’s largest.”

On January 1, 1980, Juneteenth became an official state holiday in Texas 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.”

In 1996 the first legislation to recognize “Juneteenth Independence Day” was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives, H.J. Res. 195, sponsored by Barbara-Rose Collins (D-MI). In 1997, Congress recognized the day through Senate Joint Resolution 11 and House Joint Resolution 56. In 2013 the U.S. Senate passed Senate Resolution 175, acknowledging Lula Briggs Galloway (late president of the National Association of Juneteenth Lineage) who “successfully worked to bring national recognition to Juneteenth Independence Day,” and the continued leadership of the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation.

By 2002, eight states officially recognized Juneteenth and by 2006, 15 states recognized Juneteenth as a holiday. By 2008, nearly half of U.S. states observed the holiday as a ceremonial observance. In total, 47 of the 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia recognized Juneteenth as either a state holiday or ceremonial holiday, a day of observance. The three states that did not recognize Juneteenth were Hawaii, North Dakota and South Dakota.

“In 2016, at the age of 89, former teacher and lifelong activist Opal Lee walked 1,400 miles from her home in Fort Worth, Texas, to Washington, D.C., to get Juneteenth recognized as a national holiday.”

Two years later, the U.S. Senate passed a resolution recognizing the holiday, which originated in Galveston, Texas, and honors the June 19 anniversary of the announcement by Union Army General Gordon Granger proclaiming freedom from slavery in Texas.

Though the day is now celebrated annually throughout the United States, Ms. Opal does not consider her work complete: “We have simply got to make people aware that none of us are free until we’re all free, and we aren’t free yet,” she told the New York Times last June.”

Juneteenth not only celebrates the freedom of African Americans from slavery, but it also is a time when our achievements are noted, and continuous self-development is encouraged. We dress with pride to show our spirit, sometimes in African garments. This day of national pride is celebrated with food, music, games, and other activities to promote cultural awareness and community cohesiveness. Memories have been created and shared for passing down to generations.

In 2020 and 2021, due to COVID-19 their Juneteenth Festival and Community Learning events did not occur. I am sure that the lives of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland Tamir Rice, Ahmaud Arbery and countless other Blacks who have been killed at the hands of the police were remembered and celebrated.

This year marks the 103rd anniversary of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. We need to tell the story about Tulsa, Oklahoma. I remember seeing the exhibit in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. I learned that following World War I, Tulsa was recognized nationally for its affluent African American community known as the Greenwood District. This thriving business district and surrounding residential area were referred to as “Black Wall Street.”

In June 1921, a series of events nearly destroyed the entire Greenwood area. A white mob had destroyed this 35-block of Black businesses. The number of deaths has never been confirmed but accounts say there were more than 300 deaths. This is one of the reasons why it would be politically incorrect to have a political rally on Juneteenth in Tulsa.

This should be a time of celebration for Blacks everywhere. Please, let us keep Juneteenth respected, revered and never forgotten! Our ancestors died for it, were enslaved for an extra 2 ½ years for it and I’m sure they would agree.

You may choose not to partake of big celebrations, picnics, barbeques and festivities on Juneteenth, but there are some important things that you can do on Juneteenth:

  • Register to vote.
  • Contact elected officials to voice your concerns and advocate for change.
  • Share resources.
  • Serve when you are called to jury duty. While most people deem jury duty as an inconvenient and try to get out of their civic responsibility, black and brown jurors are important now more than ever. The United States has a long history of racial discrimination in jury selection. Black jurors influence outcomes. Research shows that having even one black juror changes a trial’s outcome and in some cases, this is literally the one person to save or change a person’s life. Some studies have found that seating just one African American on the jury has reduced the rate of convictions for black defendants by 10 percent.
  • Buy Black. Large companies have a history of oppressing small and black owned businesses and putting a heavy burden on low-income communities. By buying black, you are assisting in closing the racial wealth gap which in turn strengthens local economies and has a positive domino effect like the creation of more jobs.
  • Have Inter-generational conversations. Our community is hurting. It’s time to build better relationships and communication between younger and older adults. Conversation around what we can do together that we cannot do apart should be mindful, intentional and strategic. Be sure conversations acknowledge the shared problems but being mindful each of us have lived different experiences. While emotions may run high, the process must be purposeful to not only heal but to define systems of accountability.
  • Support those on the front lines. There is power in numbers. While you may not run to your local protest since there is still an active global pandemic, you can still use your voice socially and digitally to help support those on the front lines fighting the good fight.

Doreleena Sammons Hackett, DMin, SM, SOPHE’s Director of Grants Administration

Reference: History of Juneteenth © JUNETEENTH.com

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