Juneteenth: The Celebration of Freedom for All Americans
Updated: Feb 14, 2021
Juneteenth: The Celebration of Freedom for All Americans
Juneteenth (a portmanteau of June and nineteenth) – also known as Freedom Day, Jubilee Day, Liberation Day, and Emancipation Day – is a holiday celebrating the emancipation of those who had been enslaved in the United States.
Many historians, politicians, activists, and equality experts have agreed that although July 4th gave the American people independence from England, it is indeed June 19th that we all became free as Americans!
Juneteenth is the oldest celebration of the ending of slavery in the United States. It specifically celebrates the state of Texas announcing the abolishment of slavery in 1865, two years after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued in 1863. But Juneteenth offers a time to celebrate the rich cultural history of African Americans.
Originating in Galveston, Texas, it is now celebrated annually on the 19th of June throughout the United States, with varying official recognition. It is commemorated on the anniversary date of the June 19, 1865 announcement by Union Army General Gordon Granger, proclaiming freedom from slavery in Texas.
President Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation had officially outlawed slavery in Texas and the other states in rebellion against the Union almost two and a half years earlier. Enforcement of the Proclamation generally relied on the advance of Union troops. Texas being the most remote of the slave states had a low presence of Union troops as the American Civil War ended; thus enforcement there had been slow and inconsistent before Granger's announcement
Although Juneteenth generally celebrates the end of slavery in the United States, it was still legal and practiced in two Union border states (Delaware and Kentucky) until later that year when ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution abolished chattel slavery nationwide in December.
Celebrations date to 1866, at first involving church-centered community gatherings in Texas. It spread across the South and became more commercialized in the 1920s and 1930s, often centering on a food festival. During the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, was eclipsed by the struggle for postwar civil rights but grew in popularity again in the 1970s with a focus on African American freedom and arts.
By the 21st century, Juneteenth was celebrated in most major cities across the United States. Activists are campaigning for the United States Congress to recognize Juneteenth as a national holiday. Hawaii, North Dakota, and South Dakota are the only states that do not recognize Juneteenth, according to the Congressional Research Service.
The modern observance is primarily in local celebrations. Traditions include public readings of the Emancipation Proclamation, singing traditional songs such as "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" and "Lift Every Voice and Sing", and reading of works by noted African-American writers such as Ralph Ellison and Maya Angelou. Celebrations include rodeos, street fairs, cookouts, family reunions, park parties, historical reenactments, and Miss Juneteenth contests. The Mascogos, descendants of Black Seminoles, who escaped from U.S. slavery in 1852 and settled in Coahuila, Mexico, also celebrate Juneteenth.
The state of Texas announced the abolishment of slavery in 1865, two years after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued in 1863 by Abraham Lincoln. Although the Queen of England declared in 1843 to free all slaves, specifically any slave that is currently in the Atlantic Ocean with the intention to work as a slave once they reach Texas soil, they would still need to be free when they arrived in Texas (which was part of Mexico during that time also referred to Mexican-Texas during the 1820s). Texas became part of the United States in 1845, two years after the Queen of England issued all slaves to be free in Mexico by passing the bill for the suppression of the African Slave Trade.
Celebrating Freedom of All People
An early celebration of Emancipation Day (Juneteenth) in 1900. Formerly enslaved people in Galveston celebrated after the announcement. The following year, freedmen in Texas organized the first of what became the annual celebration of "Jubilee Day" on June 19. Early celebrations were used as political rallies to give voting instructions to newly freed slaves. Early independence celebrations often occurred on January 1 or 4.
In some cities, black people were barred from using public parks because of state-sponsored segregation of facilities. Across parts of Texas, freed people pooled their funds to purchase land to hold their celebrations. The day was first celebrated in Austin in 1867 under the auspices of the Freedmen's Bureau, and it had been listed on a "calendar of public events" by 1872. That year black leaders in Texas raised $1,000 for the purchase of 10 acres of land to celebrate Juneteenth, today known as Houston's Emancipation Park. The observation was soon drawing thousands of attendees across Texas; an estimated 30,000 black people celebrated at Booker T. Washington Park in Limestone County, Texas, established in 1898 for Juneteenth celebrations. By the 1890s Jubilee Day had become known as Juneteenth.
In the early 20th century, economic and political forces led to a decline in Juneteenth celebrations. From 1890 to 1908, Texas and all former Confederate states passed new constitutions or amendments that effectively disenfranchised black people, excluding them from the political process. White-dominated state legislatures passed Jim Crow laws imposing second-class status.
The Great Depression forced many black people off farms and into the cities to find work. In these urban environments, African Americans had difficulty taking the day off to celebrate. From 1936 to 1951 the Texas State Fair served as a destination for celebrating the holiday, contributing to its revival. In 1936 an estimated 150,000 to 200,000 people joined the holiday celebration in Dallas. In 1938, Texas governor J. V. Allred issued a proclamation stating in part:
Legendary singer, Gladys L. Knight writes the decline in celebration was in part because "upwardly mobile blacks [...] were ashamed of their slave past and aspired to assimilate into mainstream culture. Younger generations of blacks, becoming further removed from slavery were occupied with school [...] and other pursuits." Others who migrated to the Northern United States couldn't take time off or simply dropped the celebration.
However, the Blacks in the State of Texas observe June 19 as the official day for the celebration of Emancipation from slavery; because June 19, 1865, was the date when General Robert [sic] S. Granger, who had command of the Military District of Texas, issued a proclamation notifying the Negroes of Texas that they were finally free. Since that time, Texas Black communities and communities of color have observed Juneteenth day with suitable holiday ceremonies.
Early celebrations consisted of baseball, fishing, and rodeos. African Americans were often prohibited from using public facilities for their celebrations, so they were often held at churches or near water. Celebrations were also characterized by elaborate large meals and people wearing their best clothing. It was common for former slaves and their descendants to make a pilgrimage to Galveston. As early festivals received news coverage, Janice Hume and Noah Arceneaux consider that they "served to assimilate African-American memories within the dominant 'American story'. "
Seventy thousand people attended a "Juneteenth Jamboree" in 1951. From 1940 through 1970, in the second wave of the Great Migration, more than five million black people left Texas, Louisiana, and other parts of the South for the North and the West Coast. As historian Isabel Wilkerson writes, "The people from Texas took Juneteenth Day to Los Angeles, Oakland, Seattle, and other places they went." In 1945, Juneteenth was introduced in San Francisco by an immigrant from Texas, Wesley Johnson.
During the 1950s and 1960s, the Civil Rights Movement focused the attention of African Americans on expanding freedom and integrating. As a result, observations of the holiday declined again (though it was still celebrated regionally in Texas). It soon saw a revival as black people began tying their struggle to that of ending slavery. In Atlanta, some campaigners for equality wore Juneteenth buttons. During the 1968 Poor People's Campaign to Washington, DC, called by Rev. Ralph Abernathy, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference made June 19 the "Solidarity Day of the Poor People’s Campaign". In the subsequent revival, large celebrations in Minneapolis and Milwaukee emerged as well as across the Eastern United States.
In 1974 Houston began holding large-scale celebrations again, and Fort Worth, Texas, followed the next year. Around 30,000 people attended festivities at Sycamore Park in Fort Worth the following year.
The 1978 Milwaukee celebration was described as drawing over 100,000 attendees.
On Jan. 1, 1980, Texas became the first state to officially recognize Juneteenth as a state holiday.
Juneteenth is considered the "longest-running African-American holiday" and has been called "America's second Independence Day". It is often celebrated on the third Sunday in June. Historian Mitch Kachun considers that celebrations of the end of slavery have three goals: "to celebrate, to educate, and to agitate".
Throughout the 80s, and gaining a record-breaking celebration across the nation during the 2020 pandemic, primary communities of color came together to recognize the historic celebration through festivals, art, dance, spoken word, special church service, picnics, parades, performances, sports tournaments, and BBQs.
Observance prior to the 2020 pandemic was primarily in local celebrations. In many places, Juneteenth has become a multicultural holiday. Traditions include public readings of the Emancipation Proclamation, singing traditional songs such as "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" and "Lift Every Voice and Sing", and reading of works by noted African-American writers such as Ralph Ellison and Maya Angelou. Celebrations include picnics, rodeos, street fairs, cookouts, family reunions, park parties, historical reenactments, blues festivals, and Miss Juneteenth contests. Strawberry soda is a traditional drink associated with the celebration. The Mascogos, the descendants of Black Seminoles, who have resided in Coahuila, Mexico since 1852, also celebrate Juneteenth.
Juneteenth celebrations often include lectures and exhibitions on African-American culture. The modern holiday places much emphasis upon teaching about African-American heritage. Karen M. Thomas wrote in Emerge that "community leaders have latched on to [Juneteenth] to help instill a sense of heritage and pride in black youth." Celebrations are commonly accompanied by voter registration efforts, the performing of plays, and retelling stories. The holiday is also a celebration of soul food and other food with African-American influences. In Tourism Review International, Anne Donovan and Karen DeBres write that "Barbecue is the centerpiece of most Juneteenth celebrations".
Within the Douglass Community, this celebration has been recognized since the community was established by the Founding Black families of Plano in the mid-1800s.
Juneteenth is a celebration that has always been celebrated in the historic Douglass Community with festivals, BBQ, church service, and remembrance of how not too long ago, not everyone was free.
Although Juneteenth commemorated freedom, throughout the United States Black citizens and People of Color continued to see a difference between their version of "freedom" compared to their White counterparts. With the racial disparities, systemic racism, and heightened call to action by civil liberty organization like NAACP and #BlackLivesMatter with evidence and undisputed proof that not all Americans can acquire the "American Dream" because not all "opportunities" are accessible for all Americans specifically in the workforce, education system, and justice system, there was a new spotlight on American history and more communities of color united to share similar experiences of missed opportunities although they were "free citizens".
This spotlight on American life brought communities together with the power of technology, social media, and cross-generational support like GenX, GenY, GenZ, and Millennials spearheading the importance of celebrating all acts of freedom. With Freedom marches occurring during the 2020 pandemic, and businesses ranging from major national corporations to small businesses, Americans came together to recognize that Juneteenth is a day in history that not just one community should celebrate, but all communities. Juneteenth suddenly became one of the most celebrated ways Americans recognized freedom. Although during the 2020 pandemic, communities were distanced, they were no longer separated.
In Plano, the 2020 Juneteenth festival was converted to a drive-thru celebration in Downtown Plano attracting nearly 500+ cars driving through a maze to learn about ways the community can support festival-goers and ways that the community can push forward in other areas of improvement. The Douglass Visions Committee (DVC) in partnerships with other local organizations hosts the free event.
Photo Credit: Zara Jones
Exhibit Activities & Questions:
What does freedom mean to you and why is important that all Americans experience the same level of freedom?
Why is it important to learn about the history that may sometimes seem to impact some people, but not all people? What can we learn from this example of how Juneteenth has expanded over the years?
Have you attended a Juneteenth celebration?
Do you think all Americans should learn about Juneteenth when they learn about American history?
How do you think the Queen of England's bill to free slaves impacted the Southern-Underground-Railroad, which is the route Blacks would escape to Mexico?
How long did it take Blacks to be free citizens in Texas after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued?
Why did the Queen of England approve the bill to suppress slavery in 1843?
What are some ways your family can celebrate Juneteenth?
What year did Texas officially recognize Juneteenth as a state holiday?
How did people celebrate Juneteenth overtime?