What Is Juneteenth?

What is Juneteenth?

Every June 19th, African Americans in as many as forty states across the country celebrate Emancipation Day. Sometimes called Freedom Day or simply Juneteenth (which is a mashup of June and Nineteenth), the day is set aside to remember the passing of the Emancipation Proclamation.

Though President Lincoln’s emancipation proclaiming the end of slavery in the United States was “effective” on January 1, 1863, news of the emancipation moved slowly, due to lack of communication (there was no CNN, no national newspapers) and because white slave owners who may have heard about the emancipation were not likely to deliver the news to their slaves. June 19, 1863 was the day that Union General Gordon Granger arrived with thousands of troops to Galveston, Texas in order to take over control of the state of Texas and deliver the news of emancipation. Not surprisingly, Juneteenth was first celebrated in Galveston, and has since grown into a nearly nationwide celebration of the end of slavery, a black mark on our nation’s history.

Juneteenth is a day for African Americans (and all people of the United States) to commit to each other as a family. It is a day set aside for building communication and brotherhood, or to work together or volunteer on projects to enhance not just African American communities, but all communities. Juneteenth is a day for all people to pray for true peace and liberty for all citizens.

As of 2009, 31 states officially recognize Juneteenth as a holiday, including states as diverse as Alaska, California, Missouri, and New Mexico.

Here’s part of the proclamation read after the seizure of Galveston:

“The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor.”

As you can imagine, the former slaves who lived in the city of Galveston rejoiced, and began dancing and celebrating in the streets for days. The very next year, the first Juneteenth celebration took place in Galveston, quickly spreading around Eastern Texas (the Western part of the state, mostly settled by Germans and other Europeans, were not known to be slave owners, and generally fought against the practice) and eventually spread to the rest of the country.

Juneteenth is usually celebrated with parades, music, parties, and a huge spread of tradtional southern foods served buffet style or as a picnic meal in a park or other meeting place, such as a church or community center. The traditional southern food served on Juneteenth includes barbecue, ham, fried chicken, piles of greens, cakes, pies, homemade bread, home made ice cream, and plenty of local fruits.

Other parts of any Juneteenth celebration include a reading or performance of the Emancipation Proclamation, to remind people what the day is all about, African American genealogy, the singing of traditional songs, and the performance of poems and plays written by African-American writers.

Some activists use Juneteenth as a time to talk openly about African American culture, to talk with other races in America and debunk myths about African Americans, to celebrate historic moments in African American history, and otherwise challenge the notion of what it means to be “black”.