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Juneteenth: Celebrating Freedom and Acknowledging History

Today we celebrate Juneteenth. As The Witness explains, “Juneteenth, a mashup of the words June and nineteenth, remembers the day in 1865 when slaves in Texas finally learned about their emancipation. It is the oldest-known celebration of black freedom from slavery.”

Why is it important? Here’s Karlos Hill from an article in Vox:

In the United States, we do not have a commemoration for the emancipation of 4 million enslaved people. We simply have not commemorated that monumental moment.

Juneteenth is a holiday, or commemoration meant to celebrate word of emancipation finally coming to a group of enslaved people in Galveston, Texas. It commemorates this group of slaves who learned that they had been emancipated months earlier. The holiday is meant to commemorate the emancipation of 4 million slaves, but particularly the small handful who weren’t aware that emancipation had come months earlier.

For an exploration of Juneteenth’s history, here is an excerpt from Henry Louis Gates, Jr. from his amazing essay at PBS:

“The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free….” —General Orders, Number 3; Headquarters District of Texas, Galveston, June 19, 1865

When Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger issued the above order, he had no idea that, in establishing the Union Army’s authority over the people of Texas, he was also establishing the basis for a holiday, “Juneteenth” (“June” plus “nineteenth”), today the most popular annual celebration of emancipation from slavery in the United States. After all, by the time Granger assumed command of the Department of Texas, the Confederate capital in Richmond had fallen; the “Executive” to whom he referred, President Lincoln, was dead; and the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery was well on its way to ratification….

….Defying confusion and delay, terror and violence, the newly “freed” black men and women of Texas, with the aid of the Freedmen’s Bureau (itself delayed from arriving until September 1865), now had a date to rally around. In one of the most inspiring grassroots efforts of the post-Civil War period, they transformed June 19 from a day of unheeded military orders into their own annual rite, “Juneteenth,” beginning one year later in 1866.

” ‘The way it was explained to me,’ ” one heir to the tradition is quoted in Hayes Turner’s essay, ” ‘the 19th of June wasn’t the exact day the Negro was freed. But that’s the day they told them that they was free … And my daddy told me that they whooped and hollered and bored holes in trees with augers and stopped it up with [gun] powder and light and that would be their blast for the celebration.’ ”

Read the full essay

More on Juneteenth


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