Independence Day in the United States of America, proclaimed by the signing of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, did not include all people enjoying freedom, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness as it states. Juneteenth, a shortened name for June 18, 1865, is the celebration of the true end of slavery and has become recognized as African American Independence Day, a day denoting true independence for all Americans. Juneteenth was declared an official state holiday in Texas on January 1, 1980, and is recognized in 42 states across America.
Why have you not heard of this celebration? This holiday was not recognized for most of the 20th Century, but came to light largely because of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. Aside from the Revolutionary War and our independence from England, Junteenth is really the most significant event in our country’s history because it marks the freedom of those who were brought here against their will; who fought for their freedom right along with many soldiers who represented those who had taken their freedom; and, who today walk along side of us – and yet, are still hoping for complete equality in the eyes of society.
We hear about being color blind, about equality, cultural diversity, and multiculturalism. Those are buzz words today, and yet we still see color when things become less than comfortable. We still see color when faced with people living in poverty, in ghettos, or those who are homeless. We still see color through discrimination in the workplace, housing, and “benefits” that should be available to every single person regardless of the color of their skin or their socio-economic status. We see color because things like racial profiling happen all the time, and it just isn’t right. African Americans represent a large part of our society today, but because of discrimination, prejudice, and racial profiling, they also represent a disproportionate percentage of the population in our juvenile and prison systems.
In his book The Making of African America: The Four Great Migrations, Ira Berlin (2010) says that our country has changed over the past 150 years. Since the emancipation of slaves, struggles with subsequent poverty, disfranchisement, segregation, the fight for civil rights is what has been the prominent goal in the struggle for equality.
Juneteenth is the oldest national celebration commemorating the end of slavery. It celebrates freedom and emphasizes the importance of education and self-achievement, encouraging respect for people of all cultural backgrounds.
Although Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation declaring freedom for all slaves, that freedom was virtually unaffected for two and a half years after the signing because of the lack of presence of the Union Army in certain regions. This changed though, when Union General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas on June 19, 1865, to announce that the Civil War had ended two months earlier.
In Galveston Bay, with an escort of more than 2,000 Union troops, General Granger publicly read to some 250,000 slaves still in captivity General Order No. 3, “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. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.”
Kenneth Davis of the Smithsonian wrote, “In the bitterness of the Reconstruction and Jim Crow eras, few states of the former Confederacy had any interest in celebrating emancipation. And as many African-Americans migrated north, especially in the Depression era, Juneteenth became a largely forgotten vestige of the Civil War era.”
Davis quotes Frederick Douglas, the abolitionist and escaped slave (also see my article) as saying ,“What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July?” In his Independence Day oration in 1852, Davis shares that Douglass continued, “I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is constant victim.”
The Texas State Library and Archives Commission states “Celebration of Juneteenth declined during World War II but revived in 1950 at the Texas State Fair Grounds in Dallas. Interest and participation fell away during the late 1950’s and 1960’s as attention focused on expansion of freedom for African-Americans. In the 1970’s Juneteenth revived in some communities. For example, in Austin the Juneteenth celebration returned in 1976 after a 25 year hiatus. House Bill no.1016 passed in the 66th Legislature, Regular Session, declared June 19, “Emancipation Day in Texas,” a legal state holiday effective January 1, 1980. Since that time, the celebration of Juneteenth continues across the state of Texas with parades, picnics and dancing.”
Juneteenth originally centered around church celebrations with guest speakers encouraging self-improvement and education, but has grown to be much more in different states around the country with parades, picnics, pig roasts, rodeos, music, singing, dancing, and joyous celebration.
Since 1865, efforts for Civil Rights with events like the Poor People’s March to Washington in 1968, and people like Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King, Jr. speaking out for equality have helped level the playing field for people of African American descent. The struggle for equal recognition, respect, and equality is still alive and well today for people of different cultural and ethnic backgrounds – we call these marginalized populations.
By learning more about cultural diversity and the multicultural issues these people face on a daily basis, we can raise awareness about how marginalized populations are discriminated against by making a difference in the way we, ourselves, treat others without even realizing it. As people and as a Nation, if we will only strive to love our neighbors as we love ourselves, the world will become a better place. According to Ira Berlin, “new circumstances require a new history.” Let’s get started on that today.
For a list of events and celebrations in your area, you can google “Juneteenth” plus your zip code.
Berlin, I. (2010). The making of African America: The four great migrations. New York, NY. The Penguin Group.
Davis, K.C., (2011). Don’t Know Much About History (Anniversary Edition) and A Nation Rising. New York, NY. Harper Collins. Retrieved from http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history-archaeology/Juneteenth-Our-Other-Independence-Day.html