This June, Americans across the country will commemorate their past with barbeques, baseball games, parades, and speeches. Wait, June? These festivities may remind you of the Fourth of July but, two weeks before Independence Day, thousands of Americans will commemorate emancipation. June 19, or “Juneteenth,” honors the symbolic end to slavery in the United States, bringing new meaning to the American celebration of freedom and citizenship. As Juneteenth draws near and the nation continues to observe the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, it is important to understand the meaning of this powerful, uniquely American holiday.
The First Juneteenth
In February of 1861, a special convention in Texas—a state that supported slavery—voted to secede from the United States and become the 7th member of the newly formed Confederate States of America. For the next four years, the nation was engaged in a civil war that cost over 600,000 American lives (2% of the total American population.) During this war, the institution that had deprived generations of Africans and African Americans their freedom finally started to crumble. On January 1, 1863, United States President Abraham Lincoln’s stunning Emancipation Proclamation went into effect and declared that all enslaved people in rebellious territories were free. While this Proclamation gave millions of people their long-awaited liberty, thousands more remained enslaved until the United States military forces could spread and enforce the Proclamation.
Texas, the westernmost member of the Confederacy, remained largely untouched by war and the Proclamation. Texas even served as a refuge for many slaveholders who fled the advance of United States armies in Louisiana and Mississippi. Escaping slaveholders forcibly relocated tens of thousands of enslaved people to Texas. This flight mimicked earlier migrations of slaveholders and slaves to Texas. When Texas became a state in 1845, many slaveowners from older southern states transferred their cotton production and plantations to Texas and took advantage of the vast amount of available land. Quickly, Texas’ agricultural production, hierarchy, and support of slavery closely resembled that of the rest of the Deep South. While wealthy slaveowners dominated society, enslaved people were legally, physically and emotionally regarded as property.
Even after C.S.A. General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia surrendered to U.S. General Ulysses S. Grant in April of 1865, roughly 250,000 people still lived as slaves in Texas. Months after the Emancipation Proclamation’s author, Abraham Lincoln, was assassinated, enslaved Texans were still largely unaware that the President had promised them freedom two years earlier. On June 19, that changed.
After remaining Confederate forces in Louisiana and Texas surrendered in May and June of 1865, the United States military-appointed U.S. Major General Gordon Granger to take command of the Department of Texas. On June 19, Granger arrived in Galveston, a small island off the east coast of Texas, and read aloud General Order #3:
“The people are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States [President Abraham Lincoln], 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.”
The order was confirmed the next day when it was printed in the Galveston Tri-Weekly News. The Emancipation Proclamation—and freedom—had reached Texas. The first Juneteenth celebration was born.
As the news of Emancipation spread, many newly freedpeople left Texas to find homes while others—some by choice and some by force—stayed to work for their former masters. Austin Grant, who was a former slave outside of Gonzales, recalled the moment he heard of his freedom:
“When the war finally was over, our old boss called us [slaves] all up and had us to stand in abreast, and he stood on the gallery and he read the verdict to ‘em…I guess when he said that they knew what he meant. The’ wasn’t but one family left with ‘im. They stayed about two years. But the rest was just like birds, they jes’ flew.”
The road to freedom and citizenship in Texas was long and grueling, but June 19 was still a powerful symbol for African Americans. From that date on, the pursuit of equality and citizenship could begin.
150 Years of Juneteenth
Americans have celebrated Juneteenth for almost 150 years, but the holiday has witnessed a lot of change. Transformations in how Americans remembered the Civil War and slavery also shaped how Juneteenth was celebrated and recognized. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, racial segregation and white Southerners’ efforts to glorify the antebellum South hindered African-American efforts to celebrate Juneteenth. Despite this adversity, former slaves and their families strove to ensure that their struggle to achieve freedom was remembered and their victory, cherished. In the decades following emancipation, Juneteenth gave African Americans the unique opportunity to commemorate their ongoing quest for equal citizenship together.
In the 1930s and 40s, war, depression and racial violence continued to threaten Juneteenth celebrations. Historian Mitch Kachun believes one could argue this period “offered no compelling reason for celebrating a freedom that had limited relevance for most African Americans’ day-to-day experiences of racial violence, discrimination and second-class citizenship.” In 1943, for example, the Richmond Times Dispatch in Virginia reported that African Americans “were asked by officials to attempt no ‘Juneteenth’ celebrations” due to recent riots in Texas. Despite the danger, Juneteenth celebrations refused to disappear and African-American Texans who left the state brought their Juneteenth traditions with them.
In the 1950s and 60s, racial tensions over the growing Civil Rights movement spilled into the public debate over how the 100th anniversary of the Civil War and emancipation should be commemorated. Historian David W. Blight argues that “for the majority [of the American public], especially of white Americans—even as they watched TV images of civil rights marchers being clubbed by police and bitten by dogs in Birmingham, Alabama—to claim the centrality of slavery and emancipation in Civil War memory was still an awkward kind of impoliteness at best and heresy at worst.” For some white Southerners, the Civil War centennial was a way rebel against Civil Rights initiatives. The story of slavery and emancipation was ignored in favor of celebrating Confederate milestones and military bravery.
The complicated and conflicting public memories of the Civil War and slavery dampened public acceptance of Juneteenth and put potential participants’ safety at risk. While many African Americans continued to celebrate Juneteenth privately, public celebrations began to decline in the 1950s and 60s. While there were some significant efforts to commemorate emancipation in other ways, including events at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. and Lincoln’s tomb in Springfield, Illinois, they failed to gain the prominence of other Civil War anniversaries.
In such a turbulent time, some members of the African American community also felt uncertain about the personal meaning and symbolism of Juneteenth. In an interview for the Institute of Texan Cultures in 1993, Dallas native Sadye Gee recalled that she “went from the ’40s to the ’60s with her [my daughter] not even being aware of Juneteenth…I felt that it was demeaning, at that time…it created some kind of anger in me… But then when I reached a rude awakening – this is part of my heritage…”
By the 1970s, a renewed communal commitment to celebrating African American history and culture also produced a rejuvenated enthusiasm for Juneteenth. In 1968, major civil rights leaders organized a Poor People’s March in Washington, D.C., gathering supporters from all over the country. Discouraged by their unsuccessful campaign at the end of June, participants received a boost in morale when Texans among them suggested a Juneteenth celebration. Juneteenth was brought to national prominence as these participants brought Juneteenth traditions home with them. In 1979, Texas made Juneteenth an official state holiday.
Support for Juneteenth continued to soar into the 1990s. The posthumous publication of Ralph Ellison’s Juneteenth in 1999 and the appearance of groups dedicated to making Juneteenth an official national holiday increased the holiday’s prominence. Following Texas’ lead, 41 states and Washington, D.C. now host some form of Juneteenth celebration. The National Juneteenth Holiday campaign by the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation is one of many continuing efforts to make Juneteenth a nationally recognized holiday.
While Juneteenth is celebrated across the nation, Juneteenth is also an intensely personal event. Its traditions are vibrant, but extremely varied. Juneteenth in Galveston, Texas—one of the nation’s largest Juneteenth celebrations and the home of the first Juneteenth—will honor many of these traditions throughout the month of June.
Public demonstrations of celebration, community, and citizenship are critical traditions in Juneteenth celebrations. Segregation and racial violence haunted Juneteenth celebrations for decades so African American celebrants often struggled to find safe public spaces for festivities. As historian Elizabeth Hayes Turner states, “public space became a mighty ingredient in the forming of Juneteenth memories.” African Americans set out to acquire, or even buy, land for their celebrations. “Emancipation” parks for Juneteenth celebrations began to appear across Texas. In 1872, Reverend Jack Yates led a community-wide effort to purchase land for Juneteenth in Houston. These efforts created Emancipation Park, which continues to be a prominent public park where—among other activities—Juneteenth is still celebrated. In 1909, a similar committee led a public effort to create an Emancipation Park for Juneteenth festivities in Austin.
In Galveston, many of the Juneteenth celebrations will take place in Jack Johnson Park. Dedicated in 2012, the park demonstrates a continued commitment to celebrating African American history on Juneteenth in a cherished community space. The park’s namesake, Jack Johnson, was a Galveston native and athlete who became the first African American to win the Heavyweight Boxing Championship in 1908.
Spiritual fellowship played a powerful role in many African American communities both during slavery and after emancipation. Religious services, prayers, and hymns have always had a prominent place in Juneteenth observances. As Turner states, “from the beginning, Freedom Day celebrations included church services in which preachers and educators reminded freedpeople of the sacred solemnity of the occasion, of their duty as emerging citizens, and of their profound right to the pursuit of legal equality.” In 1892, a reverend in Austin noted that “the 19th comes on Sunday not Saturday or Monday, so lets celebrate it in praises and thanksgiving to God” and it created a program that would “give thanks to God for our freedom all day long.”
Musical traditions at Juneteenth do not stop at spirituals and hymns. Music and dance were crucial to early Juneteenth celebrations. Festivities often included singing patriotic songs, like the national anthem, or abolitionist songs. At a Juneteenth celebration in Kansas in 1895, the Parsons Weekly Blade reported that attendees sang “Hold the Fort” and “John Brown’s Body” together before listening to a presentation on the history of Juneteenth.
Modern Juneteenth celebrants often enjoy jazz, blues, zydeco or other various genres that memorialize African American contributions to music. Zydeco is a distinctive musical style that evolved out of Creole communities in Louisiana and Texas, so it is especially linked to many Juneteenth celebrations. Popular zydeco artist CJ Chenier performed in Houston in 2013 for Juneteenth, and you can hear his performance—prominently featuring instruments such as the washboard and the accordion—at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington, D.C. Over the past three decades, Houston has also hosted a variety of prominent blues musicians, like Lightnin’ Hopkins and Albert Collins, in honor of Juneteenth.
Multitudes of other local and national artists have contributed to the musical commemorations on Juneteenth. In 1982, the Big Budweiser Superfest headlined by Stevie Wonder and Quincy Jones, called the “world’s number one rhythm and blues music festival” by the Chicago Metro News, played the Cotton Bowl for the Dallas Juneteenth celebration.
Regardless of age, race, religion or ethnicity, food has long been a familiar component—if not a focal point—on holidays. For many African Americans, Juneteenth is a special opportunity to celebrate the unique and monumental contributions enslaved people made to American cuisine. Many of the dishes associated with southern or soul food—such as barbeque, gumbo and okra—have direct African influences. (Look for U.S. History Scene’s upcoming posts on the history of some of the most beloved Southern dishes!)
Picnics, potlucks, cooking competitions, and other events that demonstrate communities’ culinary heritage are central to Juneteenth festivities. In an interview with the Institute of Texan Cultures in 1993, Lorraine O’Banion described celebrating Juneteenth as a child in Brenham, Texas where “people would come from miles and miles around… And there was barbecue and all kinds of food and, ah, pop and things.” Numerous blogs, articles, and cookbooks recommend a variety of dishes and drinks for Juneteenth that have become popular, including barbeque, strawberry soda, red rice, and cakes. Popular chefs, such as “Kitchen Diva” Angela Shelf Medearis, have contributed to the growing tableau of foods enjoyed on Juneteenth.
Galveston will host its annual Annie Mae Charles Juneteenth Picnic on June 19 and continue the tradition of food, family, and homage.
A National Event
In a few weeks, families, friends, and communities all over the United States will come together to simultaneously honor the generations who struggled in slavery and draw joy from its defeat. Almost 150 years later, Americans continue to be inspired by the men and women who finally experienced their moment of liberty on that June day in Texas. Author Kenneth C. Davis puts it this way:
“…let’s remember Juneteenth, the holiday that doesn’t mark a document, a battle, a birthday or a national tragedy, but the fundamental promise of America being more completely realized—the day on which Thomas Jefferson’s rousing rhetoric finally rang true throughout America, for all Americans.”