What will you be doing to celebrate June 19, this year? Chances are high that even if you’re active on social media and involved in the “woke” trends of today, you still will not be participating in celebrations of the oft-forgotten holiday known as Juneteenth.
“I wasn't really aware of Juneteenth until college. Even now that I am in the know, I wish that there was a greater cultural impact,” says Tenechia Lockhart, an Employee Benefits Litigator from Ohio. “Other than attending a block party a few years back, I’m ashamed to say that I have not experienced many celebrations.” Tenechia is not alone. Antonio White, the founder of Beyond Ideas Group based in Washington DC shared, “I didn't know about Juneteenth until my early adult years.” Despite this, the significance of the holiday is not lost on him. “I think it's important now more than ever for us to remember the integral role slaves played in building this country and the ways African-Americans persisted in spite of slavery and segregation, and Juneteenth is a way to remember that.”
While the Emancipation Proclamation outlawed slavery in 1863, the new law wasn’t enforced in the remote, isolated territory of Texas, due to the geographic challenges its location created. Consequently, while the Civil War was underway, there was mass migration of slaveholders carting their slaves to Texas in a feeble attempt to protect their assets. From 1860 to 1865 (the year the Civil War ended), the slave population in Texas grew by nearly 40 percent.
It wasn’t until June 19, 1865, when Union Army General Gordon Granger came riding into Galveston, Texas with 2,000 other Union soldiers to announce complete emancipation for all being held as slaves, that actual freedom was presented (be careful not to mistake this for full execution) to all enslaved Americans. One could argue this date is more significant to American history than even our beloved fourth of July.
Why isn’t this facet of history more widely known and acknowledged?
Reconstruction and Jim Crow.
As Jamelle Bouie wrote, “It’s difficult to celebrate freedom when your life is defined by oppression on all sides.”
As newly freed black people attempted to forge ahead toward journeys yet unknown, owning keepsakes and family heirlooms was not a privilege many had. Lack of resources and money prevented most from traveling with little more than the clothes on their back. “We were property, and property can’t own things, so there wasn’t a lineage of things being passed on,” says Jannah Handy, co-owner of Blk Mkt Vintage, a Brooklyn-based antique store that celebrates black curiosities. “The impact of domestic terrorism — people were forced to leave at the drop of a hat, and that really impacts what was or wasn’t passed on,” said Handy.
While the emancipatory celebration has been enjoying a popular resurgence in recent years, due in part to the rise of social media and the awareness that it brings, the modern-day celebrations continue to reflect on traditions of the past to acknowledge the significance of the holiday today.
White reflects, “Given the 2016 election and current political climate, I think people are eager to reclaim their heritage and traditions. You see it in popular media where you have people like Issa Rae, Beyonce' and others celebrating rich cultural traditions in fashion, art, dance and music that's distinct and not necessarily part of the pop culture discourse.” He continues, thoughtfully, “Tom Joyner has always acknowledged Juneteenth and supported HBCUs and black culture broadly. He's one of the people I think of when it comes to keeping the Juneteenth flame alive.”
The unlikely northern state of Minnesota has a dedicated taskforce which hosts some of the country’s largest events outside of Texas. “We have a Juneteenth festival with vendors, food, music, dancing and storytelling,” the taskforce shared. “We also host a strawberry soda pop making charity event.”
Indeed, in recent years Americans have seen a push for the holiday to be acknowledged on a national scale, as 45 of the 50 states recognize it as an official holiday. How much longer must we wait until a federal holiday is granted? In the meantime, this year, feel free to heed the advice of the Minnesota Taskforce: “Take a trip to Galveston, Texas where the celebration really started. Learn more about Juneteenth.”