Celebrating Juneteenth

Celebrating Juneteenth

Juneteenth is an American holiday commemorating the end of slavery in the United States. It was originally called "Emancipation Day" and it celebrates when slaves in Galveston, Texas were told that they were free by General Gordon Granger on June 19th, 1865 - two years after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued and two months after the surrender of Robert E. Lee, which effectively ended the Civil War. 

The original celebration of freedom became an annual one, growing in popularity through the late 1800s. However, that growth did not come without challenges. In  many areas, former slaves were forbidden from using public property for celebrations so Juneteenth festivities were pushed out to rural areas near rivers and creeks, or held on church grounds. This served to isolate Juneteenth celebrations from the larger community, in attempts to minimize awareness and diminish its significance.

Economic and cultural forces led to a decline in Juneteenth activities and participants beginning in the early 1900’s. Emphasis on classroom and textbook education, which mentioned little to nothing about Juneteenth, and moves to urban environments during to the Great Depression, where employers were less eager to grant time off meant the few participants were available to celebrate unless June 19th fell on a weekend or holiday. July 4th was already the established Independence holiday and a rise in patriotism steered more toward this celebration.

The Civil Rights movement of the 50’s and 60’s yielded both positive and negative results for the Juneteenth celebrations. While it pulled many of the African American youth into the struggle for racial equality, many linked these struggles to the historical struggles of their ancestors. This was evidenced by student demonstrators involved in the Atlanta civil rights campaign in the early 1960’s, who wore Juneteenth freedom buttons. In 1968, Juneteenth received another strong resurgence through the Poor Peoples March to Washington D.C. Rev. Ralph Abernathy’s call for people of all races, creeds, economic levels and professions to come to Washington to show support for the poor. Many of these attendees returned home and initiated Juneteenth celebrations in areas previously absent of such activities. In fact, two of the largest Juneteenth celebrations founded after this March are now held in Milwaukee and Minneapolis.

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 all across America. Since then, at least 45 states and the District of Columbia have moved to officially recognize the day. 

While Juneteenth has continued to enjoy growth, it was the unrest of 2020 that brought the holiday to the forefront of American consciousness. Many businesses moved toward marking it as a company holiday, giving many employees a paid day off. Prominent companies such as Twitter, the N.F.L., Best Buy, Nike and Target all publicly recognized Juneteenth last year. 

But so far, it has fallen short of becoming a national holiday. Senator Bernie Sanders has called for Juneteenth to become a national holiday in 2019 when he recognized Opal Lee, an activist in Fort Worth, TX who campaigns for the cause. In 2018, the U.S. Senate passed a resolution designating June 19th as "Juneteenth Independence Day" but it has not reached the House of Representatives. 

In February 2020, Ms. Lee once again traveled to Washington in support of a reintroduced bill that would make Juneteenth a national holiday. 




Source: Juneteenth.com; NY Times