Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Juneteenth’s 150th Anniversary

Juneteenth refers to the oldest commemoration of the termination of slavery in the United States, after two hundred and forty-six years of African enslavement. This year marks the 150th anniversary of Juneteenth. This commemoration goes back to June 19th 1865—a date when Union soldiers, under the command of  Major General Gordon Granger, landed at Galveston, Texas with news that the Civil War of 1861-1865 had, indeed, ended and that the enslaved were now free. Given that President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation became official on January 1, 1863, and secondly, that the 13th Amendment to the United States, which constitutionally abolished slavery, was passed by the Congress on January 31, 1865 (Hines, et al, The African American Odyssey, 2003, p. 255),[i] some observers would naturally wonder about the fact that the enslaved in Texas were still not free until June 19, 1865—two and a half years after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of 1863.

While history offers some theories about why the enslaved population in Texas remained in bondage years after the Emancipation Proclamation, there is a common viewpoint that those enslaved people of Texas were generally not aware, all along, of the Emancipation Proclamation that was supposed to take effect in the rebel states as from January 1, 1863. Second, the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 had no impact in Texas primarily because Union soldiers were not available there to enforce it. But in due course, Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s surrender in April 1865 and the subsequent arrival of Union General Granger and his regiment in Texas in June, 1865 brought along a significantly strong presence of Union soldiers to quell outstanding resistance and to enforce Emancipation.

General Granger brought the news of Emancipation through Order Number 3 that he read to the people of Texas:

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 rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and free laborer (http://www.juneteenth.com/history.htm).

Among the enslaved, reactions to this historic news included both shock and jubilation. Some of them headed for the North, while others migrated to closer destinations, such as Louisiana, Arkansas and Oklahoma.

Henceforth, June 19 of each year came to be annually celebrated by the freed African Americans and their descendants. It served as an annual special occasion for commemorating that “great day in June of 1865” with festivities and for recounting cherished memories of that day of liberation. In a way, for the newly liberated African Americans, this annual celebration also served “as a release from the growing pressures encountered in their new territory.” In due course, the celebration of June 19th was coined "Juneteenth" and the descendants of the initial generation of freed African Americans saw to it that the celebration was kept alive and annually re-enacted. As one historical note recalls, “the Juneteenth celebration was a time for reassuring each other, for praying and for gathering remaining family members. Juneteenth continued to be highly revered in Texas decades later, with many former slaves and descendants making an annual pilgrimage back to Galveston on this date” (http://www.juneteenth.com/history.htm).

Juneteenth celebrations typically featured entertainment and abundant refreshments, including special dishes of not regularly available portions of lamb, pork and beef, along with prayers and educational items meant for self-improvement. Guest-speakers and elders tended to recount the struggles of the past, as they discussed the historical significance of Juneteenth. Barbecuing featured prominently in Juneteenth celebrations as celebrants shared “in the spirit and aromas that their ancestors” (http://www.juneteenth.com/history.htm).

Celebrants come well-dressed and in early Juneteenth customs, being well-dressed was viewed seriously, particularly by the direct descendants of the enslaved population, for during slavery, the enslaved were prohibited, by law, from dressing as a free people could and can do. Thus, history has it that during the early days of this emancipation celebration in June, 1865, liberated African Americans discarded “their ragged garments into the creeks and rivers” and replaced them with clothing retrieved from their plantations (http://www.juneteenth.com/history.htm).

Negligible outside interest
But, the early years of Juneteenth celebrations tended to attract negligible interest outside of the African American community. In fact, there were instances of external resistance to these celebrations as exemplified by official prohibition, in some places, of the use of public facilities for the occasion. So, in the early phase, most of the festivities tended to be staged in rural areas and by the rivers and creeks “that could provide for additional activities such as fishing, horseback riding and barbecues. Often the church grounds was the site for such activities” (http://www.juneteenth.com/history.htm).

But as African Americans became land owners, it was not uncommon to see land donated and dedicated to Juneteenth celebrations. A prominent early example occurred in 1872 when one Reverend Jack Yates organized and raised a sum of $1000 which was used to buy an Emancipation Park in Houston, Texas. In 1898, a local Juneteenth organization in Mexia, Texas bought Booker T. Washington Park, which served as a Juneteenth celebration site for decades, attracting as many as 20,000 African Americans during the course of a week, making that celebration one of the state’s largest.

A decline in Juneteenth celebrations
As from the 1900s, economic and cultural factors brought about a decline in Juneteenth festivities. As classroom and textbook education gradually replaced traditional home and family-taught history, with their less emphasis on the details and inhumanity of slavery, youth awareness and youth interest in this celebration dwindled.  Classroom text-books typically emphasize Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863 as the landmark instrument that brought about the termination of slavery in the United States. Even till today, textbooks, in general, tend not to discuss the impact of General Granger’s arrival in Galveston, Texas on June 19th, 1865. Furthermore, the Great Depression of the 1930s exacerbated poverty and caused many to lose their farms and to move to cities in search of jobs. The time constraints of urban employment often meant that unless June 19th fell on a weekend or a holiday, not many people were available to commemorate the historic day of June 19. Being close of July 4, not surprisingly, Juneteenth has tended to be overshadowed by America’s national Independence holiday.

A resurgence of youth interest
Nonetheless, some pivotal moments of the African American journey for freedom, equal rights and justice, particularly the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s, have seen a resurgence of youth interest in the historical struggles of their ancestors. Juneteenth served as a rallying symbol. For instance, a set of students who participated in an Atlanta, Georgia civil rights campaign in the early 1960s adorned Juneteenth freedom buttons. On May 12, 1968, Juneteenth received yet another boost through that day’s Poor Peoples March on Washington, spearheaded by Reverend Ralph Abernathy, Reverend Jesse Jackson and Coretta Scott King, wife of the slain Civil Rights Leader, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who had laid out a vision for that march but was assassinated on April 4, 1968 before it could be implemented (http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=91626373). A large number of those who attended the march, which attracted a crowd of about 50, 000, returned home to help organize Juneteenth celebrations in places where it had not been observed previously.  Milwaukee and Minneapolis are cited as two of the most prominent Juneteenth celebrations initiated after the Poor Peoples March of 1968.

Texas blazes the trail
In 1980, the state of Texas emerged as the first state to officially recognize the Juneteenth emancipation celebration through the work of an African American legislator, Al Edwards. He went on to encourage other states to follow suit (http://www.texanstogether.org/content/juneteenth). His efforts have been rewarded handsomely, for today, 43 states of the Union, including Michigan, have proclaimed Juneteenth as an official state holiday. Juneteenth has also been embraced by prominent national institutions as sponsors of its festivities. They include the Smithsonian, the Henry Ford Museum and others.

Global Spread of Juneteenth
Juneteenth has reached beyond the shores of the United States, and is commemorated by African Americans who live abroad and their friends in several countries around the world. Among parts of the world where such Juneteenth commemorations have been held in various forms are South Korea, Nigeria, Afghanistan, Japan, Canada, Honduras, Ghana, Israel, Trinidad, Guam, France, England, Barbados, China, Germany, Italy, Puerto Rico, Germany, Czech Republic, Kuwait, and Spain (http://www.juneteenth.com/international.htm).

Continued Official Recognition of the Importance of Juneteenth
Here in the United States, the historic significance of Juneteenth continues to receive high-profile official recognition. The White House, the Senate of the United States, the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and the Republican National Committee (RNC) have all issued statements saluting this year’s 150th anniversary of Juneteenth.

On June 20, 2015, a White House statement noted as follows:

On this day 150 years ago, more than two years after President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, the slaves of Galveston, Texas finally received word that the Civil War was over. They were free. A century and a half later, Americans still recognize this occasion, Juneteenth, as a symbolic milestone on our journey toward a more perfect union. At churches and in parks, lined up for parades and gathered around the barbecue pit, communities come together and celebrate the enduring promise of our country: that all of us are created equal (http://www.juneteenth.com/whitehouse.htm).

However, the White House statement regretted that:

This year, our celebrations are tinged with sorrow. Our prayers are with the nine members of the Mother Emanuel community — nine members of our American family — whose God-given rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness were so cruelly snatched away. Our hearts go out to their families, their friends, and the entire city of Charleston. We don’t have to look far to see that racism and bigotry, hate and intolerance, are still all too alive in our world. Just as the slaves of Galveston knew that emancipation is only the first step toward true freedom, just as those who crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge 50 years ago knew their march was far from finished, our work remains undone (http://www.juneteenth.com/whitehouse.htm).

As it has done in previous years, in a resolution of June 19, 2015, the Senate of the United States proclaimed June 19, 2015, as “Juneteenth Independence Day.” The resolution said it “supports the continued nationwide celebration of “Juneteenth Independence Day” to provide an opportunity for the people of the United States to learn more about the past and to better understand the experiences that have shaped the United States,” pointing out that it “recognizes that the observance of the end of slavery is part of the history and heritage of the United States” (http://www.brown.senate.gov/newsroom/press/release/brown-applauds-passage-of-juneteenth-resolution-honoring-the-day-that-news-of-the-end-of-slavery-spread-to-the-southwest).

In its own statement, the Democratic National Committee said:

Juneteenth is an opportunity to recognize the sacrifices of those who suffered from the stain of slavery in our nation’s early history, and the courage of those who struggled to secure a more perfect union. We commemorate those who were born or sold into slavery, and those who died in the process of bringing about its end (http://www.juneteenth.com/dnc14.htm).

And, the DNC added that “Juneteenth is also an opportunity to celebrate the significant contributions made by the African American community, and our nation’s rich history of those willing to fight for equality and freedom for all” (http://www.juneteenth.com/dnc14.htm), noting that “to this day, the fight continues” for “voter expansion, immigration reform, marriage equality, education reform, employment non-discrimination, health care reform,” each of which constitutes part “of the effort to extend the full set of rights and privileges to which we’re entitled as Americans” (http://www.juneteenth.com/dnc14.htm).

It its own statement, the Republican National Committee stated, in part, as follows:

Whether you’re celebrating Juneteenth at a community event or with family and friends, it is important for us to reflect upon how far we have come and the people who made it possible … Our past is a reminder of the necessity of fighting for equal opportunity and valuing our nation’s efforts to ensure freedom for all Americans (http://www.juneteenth.com/rnc.htm).

We can see from the foregoing passages that within this nation, there remains a bi-partisan recognition of the historic significance of Juneteenth as an essential celebration of freedom, liberty, democracy and equal rights for all. This is note-worthy and commendable, for, as a popular adage goes, those who forget their history are bound to repeat its mistakes. Indeed, African American epic struggles have had an overall salutary impact of expanding the democratic space and giving freedom a concrete meaning in the United States, and also serving as a metaphor for battles fought by other human communities, within and outside this country, for their own freedom and for legal recognition of their entitlement to equal rights in the sociopolitical arena.

[i] Though Congress passed the 13th Amendment on January 31, 1865, it was then ratified by 27 states and declared effective as from December 18, 1865.