Juneteenth officially arrives Monday, though observances leading up to the new national holiday started in the days leading up to America’s newest national holiday.
It’s a bittersweet occasion: A moment to celebrate Black Americans’ freedom from slavery while recalling the centuries of bitterness that led up that moment and the continued challenges they have faced in the years since. It’s a call to redouble our efforts in the cause of freedom and justice rather than be complacent.
Juneteenth commemorates the freedom of slaves in the former Confederate states following the conclusion of the Civil War. In 1863 President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, declaring the slaves in the Confederate states freed. But word of the proclamation was slow to reach people around the country. On June 19, 1865, later called Juneteenth, an estimated 250,000 slaves in Texas finally received official notification of their freedom.
Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger read General Orders, No. 3, at the District of Texas headquarters in 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.”
The announcement met with immediate jubilation, dancing and singing among the now former slaves who heard it, and later to more elaborate celebrations, according to juneteenth.com.
Up until a few years ago, the annual observance of Juneteenth was not particularly well-known outside Black communities across America.
Today’s interest in Juneteenth is a byproduct of increased awareness when it comes to America’s ongoing problems with race relations. In the wake of the killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police in 2020 and the protests that followed, many recognized the need for people to learn more about Black history in America. As a result local observances became common in communities across the country, and in 2021 President Joe Biden signed a measure making June 19 a national holiday.
Local celebrations of Juneteenth take many forms, from traditional picnics and barbecues to creative efforts to drive home the need to discuss contemporary issues in race relations.
For example, Reading last week hosted the Great Barrington Project, named for the Massachusetts birthplace of civil rights pioneer W.E.B. Dubois.
In this deceptively simple art project, people were asked to sit down across the table from a Black person and look into their eyes. Artist Delano Burrowes of New York described it as a way for people to really see each other and deal with the discomfort that’s likely to go with it.
“How often in the world do you actually look at someone?” Burrowes asked. “We’re not. Especially in a world with technology; we’re looking at phones.”
That’s a good question and the sort of thoughtful fodder for discussion that made the effort worthwhile. It’s certainly a most appropriate way to mark this occasion.
With ongoing serious disagreements about how to go about educating people on America’s history with race, it’s heartening to see much bipartisan agreement on Juneteenth. The Juneteenth National Independence Day Act won overwhelming approval in Congress two years ago.
We can only hope this annual observance leads to further dialogue in which people listen to one another’s views on these difficult issues rather than shouting past one another as happens far too often.
The celebration of empowerment that is Juneteenth reflects the reality of the long road to freedom and equality that African Americans have had to endure.
The Emancipation Proclamation, after all, freed only the slaves in the Confederate states. Despite constitutional amendments granting them freedom, full rights as citizens and the right to vote, it took another century for those promises to be fully implemented. And more still needs to be done to put our stated principles into practice on matters of race.
The work toward racial reconciliation continues. May the difficult discussions brought on by events of the recent past lead us closer to greater equality and mutual understanding.