Juneteenth: What is it and Why is it Celebrated?

Juneteenth is not a national US holiday, but it should be.

In the words of Audre Lorde, “I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own. And I am not free as long as one person of Color remains chained. Nor is anyone of you.”

Most people celebrate July 4th as the United States Independence Day. You don’t need me to tell you that — you’ve been taught that since the beginning of everything. We get the day off from work, you probably see (in a non-pandemic time) parades, fireworks and big celebrations. But July 4th is not an independence day for everyone because as highlighted in the Audre Lorde quote above, how can we claim to be free if we are not all free?

As July 4th has been celebrated since 1776 it was long being commemorated while Blacks were still enslaved meaning while independence was being celebrated it was not equally available. In 1852, Frederick Douglass brought this this question to US Government at the time when asked to speak on July 5th. Douglass was asked to give the keynote address at an Independence Day celebration. His speech, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” (side note: if you have never read the full speech the link goes directly to it, and this post will still be here when you’re done) lauded the Founding Fathers for their ideas of founding on the basis of freedom but highlighted the hypocrisy of doing so while utilizing enslaved people to develop the country.

In my personal favorite quote from the speech Douglass says,

I say it with a sad sense of the disparity between us. I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. — The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mineYou may rejoice, I must mourn.

– Frederick Douglass “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”

How does this relate to Juneteenth?

As we’ve established July 4th is not an Independence Day for Blacks, in the same way it is for white history. Juneteenth in its own way is. Juneteenth is the day Blacks celebrate the last enslaved people learning of their freedom. Now your history class probably taught you that Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves with the Emancipation Proclamation which was issued September 22, 1862 to take effect January 1, 1863 and that is true*. However, slavery was an insidious and unrelenting force and most slave owners did not just wake up on January 1, 1863 walk outside and say, “Hey y’all it’s been great but you can go now.” While that would have been nice it’s 100% not what happened.

In reality, word of the Emancipation Proclamation spread slowly across the south (there are a few varying rationales for why) as Union soldiers were able to enforce the executive order. It wasn’t until June 19, 1865 when Union soldiers reached Galveston, Texas (yes, more than two years after the supposed freedom that came with the Emancipation Proclamation) that slaves within Texas (often cited as the last slaves held) were informed that they were henceforth freed and the war was over.

*Small aside here you should also probably look up the limitations of the Emancipation Proclamation if you don’t know them because it only applied to suceded states (meaning Union loyal slave states need not worry) that had not yet come under Union control, and of course was contingent upon Union victory.

How is Juneteenth Celebrated?

As a result of this history, Juneteenth is the day that many Blacks continually celebrate to this day. It is our own recognized independence day, as many say “free-ish since 1865”, and for many is a day to come together as both family and community. Especially since families and communities were routinely broken up during slavery. Celebrations happen in many way from parades, to festivals, and storytelling to ensure that our history is not lost just to name a few examples. It is a day that is about liberation, celebration, education, and reflection (often on how far we have come and still have yet to go).

Cities across the country often have organizations that are committed to telling the story of Juneteenth and plan the activities surrounding that day. There is a large push to get Juneteenth recognized as a Federal Holiday in the US. Just as an aside, here in Pennsylvania, Governor Tom Wolf officially recognized Juneteenth as a state holiday as of 2019, prior to that it had been commemorated since 2001 but not an official holiday.

Now I Know…What Can I Do?

If this is the first time you’re hearing of Juneteenth, I hope this little snippet has been informative and also a way to start thinking about the ways we are taught specific versions of history. Begin to question who’s histories are we not taught and how can we in our own lives fill in the gaps.

A few pieces of action now that you know:
– Educate yourself and pass that information on to others.
-Figure out how Juneteenth is being celebrated in your area each year. Perhaps go and see a festival and observe the celebration, but remember if you are not Black it is not your time to center yourself.
-Donate to organizations that do the work to keep this history alive.
-Shop Black owned businesses on that day, now and going forward.
-Engage Congress for a federal holiday, or your local government if your state doesn’t recognize it yet.

Thank you for being here, let me know what questions you have and Happy Juneteenth!

Extra Resources:

Victoria Ellyse