Honoring Juneteenth Through Listening, Learning, and Reflecting

Juneteenth is a holiday celebrated each year by Black and African American people all across the United States. Unfortunately, Juneteenth (along with many other notable events in Black American history) has been left out of many classrooms and history books. As Star Bright Books has been listening and learning from the Black community, we felt it important to discuss the history and importance of this holiday, as well as the implications it carries in our society.

History

The ratification of the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, is often considered the end of slavery in the US. However, plantation owners throughout the South continued to enslave Black people for nearly two and a half more years. On June 19, 1865, two months after the Confederate Army surrendered, signaling the end of the US Civil War, Union General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, to announce the end of the war and declare the liberation of all enslaved people there.

After this announcement, many formerly enslaved people journeyed north, unsure of what their futures would look like. Despite numerous hardships, Black and African American families gathered on June 19 the following year to celebrate a day that then came to be considered the true ending of chattel slavery. The date, June 19, was shortened and combined to become one word—Juneteenth—and is celebrated each year.

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Juneteenth celebration at Emancipation Park in 1880

Celebrations

On June 19, 1866, formerly enslaved people in Texas gathered for prayer and the singing of spirituals to celebrate the anniversary of their freedom. This celebration effectively began the tradition of Juneteenth celebrations for Black communities.

Soon thereafter, Black and African American people in other states began celebrating Juneteenth as well. It became a means to bring families together for reassurance and prayer.  Some formerly enslaved men, women, and their children would even make a pilgrimage to Galveston to acknowledge their pasts and pray for their futures.

More recently, Juneteenth celebrations have come to include barbeques, musical performances, and beauty contests beginning in the first week of June and continuing through June 19. It has become a way to celebrate the importance of Black culture in America and has become representative of the ongoing fight for racial equality.

Why don’t we know about Juneteenth?

During the nineteenth century, Juneteenth celebrations existed almost exclusively for African American communities. Many white communities even banned the use of public property for these celebrations. In the early 1900s, when classroom and textbook education overtook the more traditional form of home education, both Black and white segregated schools put very little emphasis on Black and African American history—as they continue to do today.

Juneteenth and other notable African American historical events have been treated as less of a priority. This, coupled with a lack of economic resources in the early twentieth century and through Great Depression, allowed very few Black people to celebrate Juneteenth unless it fell on a weekend. However, in the 1950s and ’60s the holiday resurged with the growing strength of the civil rights movement. Young protestors returned home from rallies with plans for new Juneteenth celebrations.

Blackout Bike Ride in New Orleans, June 19 2020 (Photo courtesy of Adam Dawson at Stay Red Studios).

Juneteenth Today

This year, Juneteenth has gained national attention in light of the recent police murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and many other Black people. The recent protests surrounding their deaths have reenergized the fight for racial justice and equality. In light of this attention, leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement called upon its supporters to celebrate and utilize Juneteenth as a time to reflect, learn, and connect across Black communities.  

Why should we honor Juneteenth?

Conversations are ongoing to declare Juneteenth a national holiday, with especially strong pushes in recent months. Some states and cities have already passed bills to officially recognize Juneteenth as a state holiday or local celebration.

Beyond this holiday, however, it is important to stand in solidarity with the Black community and actively support the continued fight for racial equality. We must continue to educate ourselves about the harsh history of racial and ethnic inequality in the United States—it is only through learning and understanding that we may find the compassion and empathy to support others.

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