From Africa’s heart, we rose
Already a people, our faces ebon, our bodies lean,
Skills of art, life, beauty and family
Crushed by forces we knew nothing of, we rose
Survive we must, we did,
We rose to be you, we rose to be me,
Above everything expected, we rose
To become the knowledge we never knew,
Dream, we did
Act we must
–“We Rose” by Kristina Kay, 1996 (https://juneteenth.com/poetry/)
Juneteenth: An Overview
As we begin this post, I want everyone who may read this to understand that this will not be a blog entry that subscribes to revisionist history. This post is intended to bring an unabridged truth to this conversation by removing the white-washing of colonization and slavery in U.S. history that perpetuate a misunderstanding of American Culture and its long history of anit-blackness, assimilation, appropriation, effacement, and exclusion to the detriment of Black people.
Juneteenth, a hybrid of June and 19th, is a symbolic date representing African American freedom and an important part of African-American cultural heritage. Often referred to as Black Independence Day, Freedom Day, Emancipation Day, Jubilee Day, and Liberation Day. The first commemoration of Juneteenth; Jubilee Day, was held in Galveston, TX in 1866. Over time, as African-Americans migrated from Texas to other states, the tradition of Juneteenth became a more widespread ritual across the U.S.(https://www.history.com/news/what-is-juneteenth).
Juneteenth celebrations feature music, prayer service, and other community building activities to honor their ancestors, their perseverance, and the culture of their origin within the African and Black Diaspora. Commemorations also incorporate red food items and/or barbeque to symbolize the blood of their ancestors lost during slavery. Other food dishes served include prosperity sides such as greens for good luck and black-eyed peas for wealth (https://www.oprahdaily.com/life/a36479941/juneteenth-food-traditions/). Attendees often dress in their best clothes and hold the celebration in a public recreational space in remembrance of the hardships their ancestors had to bear under oppressive laws (Black Codes and Jim Crow Laws) which limited or denied them access to owning property, securing gainful employment or a living wage, the ability to wear nice attire, or to use public parks for gatherings.
The Origins of Juneteenth
The origins of Juneteenth must be framed from a lens that unapologetically recounts the dark American historical practice of human trafficking and slavery. Often glossed over in our educational system is the importance of the inhumane practice of trafficking and enslavement of Black people to the very foundation and development of this country. Furthermore, It is through the context of juxtaposing Independence Day and Juneteenth in American History that we gain a clear understanding of why African-Americans celebrate Juneteenth as the true end to the legal bondage and enslavement of their ancestors instead of Independence Day.
When discussing Independence Day, there is a general understanding that this holiday is critical to the historical inception of the United States as we know it today. It is when settlers/colonizers–White British citizens that immigrated to the Americas–gained their freedom and sovereignty from Great Britain (or British colonial rule). On that fateful day in history, July 4, 1776, the Second Continental Congress unanimously adopted the Declaration of Independence. As part of the declaration these same settlers/colonizers claimed, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”. Although this statement alone embodies a profound respect for human dignity, the hypocrisy of those who drafted the document is evident in the historical treatment, torture, and slaughter of indigenous and enslaved people for their own prosperity.
While settlers/colonizers gained their freedom from Great Britain, enslaved Blacks did not. British colonizers did not truly subscribe to the belief all men are created equal. Black soldiers fought on both sides of the American Revolution, but many who fought for the Continental army were forced by slave owners. Many enslaved Blacks escaped to fight with the British but only a few of them were given a conditional “freedom”. Some Black soldiers who fought on behalf of the British were even returned to Loyalist slave owners. In the end the American Revolution was of little to no benefit to the conditions of enslaved Black people in America. Black people continued to be kidnapped from their homelands per the Transatlantic slave trade, brought to American soil, sold on an auction block as property, and forced to endure the brutality of slavery, lynching, and rape at the hand of these same settlers who proclaimed all men are created equal, endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, including Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
A series of events between 1860 and 1866 led to the inception of Juneteenth; the election of Abraham Lincoln, the Emancipation Proclamation, the 13th Amendment, and the arrival of General Order No. 3 in Galveston, TX. During Abraham Lincoln’s Presidency he made good on the promises from his campaign platform on anti-slavery expansion. Shortly after he took office in 1861, the process to abolish slavery was accomplished by two important pieces of law; the Emancipation Proclamation, which was passed on January 1st, 1863 and the 13th Amendment to the Constitution was passed by Congress on January 1st, 1865 and ratified on December 6th, 1865. At the same time, the Civil War (April 12, 1861 – May 9, 1865) began, dividing the country into two warring factions; the Union and the Confederacy (a collective of states that seceded from the Union in protest of the new administration’s policy changes, including but not limited to the issue of slavery).
There is often a misconception about the Emancipation Proclamation abolishing slavery. The Emancipation Proclamation only begins the process by freeing slaves in states that seceded from the Union (United States) and had not surrendered. States that remained part of the Union and states that were part of the Confederacy that had already surrendered were exempt under the proclamation. In fact, slavery remained legal within the Union and surrendered Confederate states until the 13th Amendment passes Congress on January 1st, 1865. Unfortunately, during this period many slave owners continued to ignore the law, especially in the Confederacy, denying the enslaved their freedom. In fact, after New Orleans fell to the Union in 1862, slave owners in neighboring Confederate states took their enslaved and migrated to Texas in an attempt to circumvent the Union Army and the law (https://www.pbs.org/wnet/african-americans-many-rivers-to-cross/history/what-is-juneteenth/).
On June 19th, 1865; 2½ years after the Emancipation Proclamation, 5 months after the 13th Amendment passes Congress, and shortly after the Civil War ended in May, Major General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, TX, and announced the end of the Civil War and the end of slavery as stated in General Order 3. This historical act liberates the last 250,000 enslaved in the United States, truly representing the day all African-Americans gained their freedom.
It is through this unabridged historical context that we can begin to understand why Independence Day holds very little significance for African-American people. Why would a Black person celebrate the freedom of the people — white British immigrants — who hold them in bondage from a monarchy across the ocean? Would you celebrate the victory of your torturer and trafficker?
Juneteenth (June 19th): Recognized Holiday Status
Texas was the first state to adopt Juneteenth as an official state holiday, January 1, 1980, thanks to the work of Al Edwards, an African American state legislator. Although most states have some observance of Juneteenth as a holiday, only six states (Texas, Massachusetts, New York, Virginia, Washington, Oregon) have delacred Juneteenth as an official state holiday https://blogs.findlaw.com/law_and_life/2021/06/which-states-have-made-juneteenth-an-official-state-holiday.html). As of May 30th, 2021 the Illinois Legislature has approved Juneteenth as an official state holiday. Once Governor J.B.Pritzker signs the measure, statewide observance of Juneteenth would become effective immediately (https://apnews.com/article/il-state-wire-illinois-business-race-and-ethnicity-lifestyle-6c23a4bfbc189738f1549fdfbc242ed1).
If America is truly the land of the free, then Juneteenth should be a national holiday. Juneteenth is America’s second Independence Day. It marks the end of the bloody, cruel and murderous practice of human chattel slavery. It marks the beginning of a long and unfinished journey of reconciliation, retribution, restoration, reparations, and quest for equity for African-Americans. Most importantly, it marks the beginning of the journey to true freedom for all Americans.
However, Juneteenth is vastly unknown and rarely taught to American students as part of our history. We learned about Juneteenth during our studies at DePaul. It would be years later that we would further learn that Juneteenth is celebrated in many African American communities. The tragedy here is that American history is told by white Americans who want to make white America seem infallible, just and humane at the cost of factually reporting on all of American history. Too often slavery is minimized, the emancipation and the 13th Amendment glossed over, and the atrocities against Black people — lynchings, massacares like Tulsa, Springfield, Slocum, Ludlow, Virden, Lattimer, Red Summer Chicago, Bogalusa, Polk County and many more — ignored and erased from the history books. American history has a pattern of erasing the contributions of African-Americans to this country.
The renewal and widespread acknowledgement and celebration of Juneteenth has to be rooted in accountability. At this moment Americans are demonstrating a growing willingness to begin the process of reckoning with anti-Blackness, racism and systematic oppression of African-Americans in the United States. This includes support of policy changes that attempt to advance reconciliation. Juneteenth is no exception. Although long overdue, there is finally some traction in the movement to establish Juneteenth as a federal holiday. As of June 16th, 2021, S. 475 / H.R.1320—Juneteenth National Independence Day Act has passed the Senate and is currently in the House of Representatives for review (https://www.congress.gov/bill/117th-congress/senate-bill/475/related-bills?r=4). If the bill passes the House of Representatives it will be forwarded to President Biden’s desk to sign into law.
- Video: What is Juneteenth (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K3aQjTy328o)
- National Archives Safeguards Original ‘Juneteenth’ General Order (https://www.archives.gov/news/articles/juneteenth-original-document)
- Congressional Research Service: Juneteenth Fact Sheet (https://crsreports.congress.gov/product/pdf/R/R44865)
- What is Juneteenth (https://juneteenth.com/history/)
- National Museum of African American History and Culture: The Historical Legacy of Juneteenth (https://nmaahc.si.edu/blog-post/historical-legacy-juneteenth)
- Zinne Project: Timeline of Massacres in US History(https://www.zinnedproject.org/collection/massacres-us/)
- Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (https://i-share-dpu.primo.exlibrisgroup.com/permalink/01CARLI_DPU/1ihqd0q/alma994568865105831)
- Library of Congress: The Birth of Juneteenth; Voices of the Enslaved (https://blogs.loc.gov/loc/2020/06/the-birth-of-juneteenth-voices-of-the-enslaved/)
- Voices Remembering Slavery: Freed People Tell Their Stories (https://www.loc.gov/collections/voices-remembering-slavery/about-this-collection/)
- JuneteenthIllinois.com (https://juneteenthillinois.com)
Authors: Heather Hummons and April Hummons