Juneteenth

In 1865, the US Civil War came to a close when General Ulysses S. Grant accepted the unconditional surrender of General Robert E Lee and the army of the confederacy (Confederate States of America).  With that, the Emancipation Proclamation of 1862 now applied to all slaveholding territories.  Some two months later, the news reached Texas. The following description comes from the Handbook of Texas on line:

On June 19 (“Juneteenth”), 1865, Union general Gordon Granger read the Emancipation Proclamation in Galveston, thus belatedly bringing about the freeing of 250,000 slaves in Texas. The tidings of freedom reached slaves gradually as individual plantation owners read the proclamation to their bondsmen over the months following the end of the war. The news elicited an array of personal celebrations, some of which have been described in The Slave Narratives of Texas (1974).

There has been some controversy about why it took more than two years since the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect (Jan. 1, 1863) for the word to get to Texas.  Here is the way the Juneteenth History site describes this question:

Later attempts to explain this two and a half year delay in the receipt of this important news have yielded several versions that have been handed down through the years. Often told is the story of a messenger who was murdered on his way to Texas with the news of freedom. Another, is that the news was deliberately withheld by the enslavers to maintain the labor force on the plantations. And still another, is that federal troops actually waited for the slave owners to reap the benefits of one last cotton harvest before going to Texas to enforce the Emancipation Proclamation. All of which, or neither of these version could be true. Certainly, for some, President Lincoln’s authority over the rebellious states was in question   For whatever the reasons, conditions in Texas remained status quo well beyond what was statutory.

The name “Juneteenth” then celebrates the actual, final, de jure end of slavery in the United States.  The end of the war and the end of slavery initiated one of the most remarkable periods of American history: the period usually called “Reconstruction.”  I think it is important to recognize Reconstruction as an extension of the Civil War.  The political defeat of Reconstruction comes down to us as the betrayal of the hopes engendered by the Emancipation Proclamation, the military victory, and first Juneteenth celebrations.

Celebrations have become widespread throughout the United States — not simply in Texas — for two reasons.  First, the Texas celebrations became a matter of pride and accomplishment throughout the Southern Black population; and the migrations out of the South brought enclaves of Blacks to communities from Bakersfield to Bangor.  Second, Reconstruction may have been crushed,  but the drive for freedom could not be so easily quelled.  The celebrations of Juneteenth became a way to recover that celebration of accomplishment, the celebration of a battle for freedom. According to http://www.juneteenth.com/history.htm

Today, Juneteenth is enjoying a phenomenal growth rate within communities and organizations throughout the country. Institutions such as the Smithsonian, the Henry Ford Museum and others have begun sponsoring Juneteenth-centered activities. In recent years, a number of local and national Juneteenth organizations have arisen to take their place along side older organizations – all with the mission to promote and cultivate knowledge and appreciation of African American history and culture.
Juneteenth today, celebrates African American freedom and achievement, while encouraging continuous self-development and respect for all cultures. As it takes on a more national, symbolic and even global perspective, the events of 1865 in Texas are not forgotten, for all of the roots tie back to this fertile soil from which a national day of pride is growing

This year a number of significant events celebrating Juneteenth took place throughout the country.  Here is a link to one scientist’s musing on the meaning of Juneteenth in North Carolina: “What is the Juneteenth of which you speak?” Minneapolis, San Antonio, Los Angeles, New Orleans, Washington D.C. and many others hosted celebrations of what has become known as “African American Independence Day” — a substitute for July 4 at which “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” once known as the “Negro National Anthem,” was always sung. (It was sung at the 2008 presidential inauguration). Here is one among many Youtube versions of this stirring music, with Kim Weston singing to 100,000 people, introduced by a young Jesse Jackson.

In Chicago this year, Governor Pat Quinn took part in a Juneteenth celebration at Du Sable Museum, declaring the day Museum’s artist founder Margaret Burroughs day.  It was celebrated at Thompson Center.  Perhaps the most extensive celebration was in Marquette Park, where the music went on from 9 AM to 9 PM:

Chicagoans looking for something to do to celebrate Juneteenth were in for a treat with the Inner-City Muslim Action Network’s (IMAN) “Takin’ It to the Streets” free concert from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Marquette Park, located at 6734 S. Kedzie, had approximately 20,000 people; 200 vendors; 100 artists, including hip-hop guru Mos Def headlining the concert; four stages worth of entertainment; health summits; a prayer area; family-friendly games and rides all in one day.

This post is intended to do three things. First, at the time of the official Independence Day celebration, to recognize the limitation of that  celebration;  second, to explore some of the history that makes Juneteenth such an important date and to show how widespread are the celebrations;  and finally, to understand that under the current conditions commemorating Juneteenth, a celebration of the fight for freedom, assumes an even more important role as the dispossessed of all ethnicities see their economic human rights driven down.

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