Some people believe the day should be a state and federal holiday. Others are perfectly content with the status of government recognized observance.
But whatever their beliefs, supporters all agree that June 19 should be a day when African Americans, in fact, all Americans reflect on the ending of a particularly painful chapter in the nation’s history.
June 19, or Juneteenth as it is popularly called (some also call it Emancipation Day), is the day in 1865 that the last 250,000 people of African descent held in slavery in the United States were formally notified of their freedom. On that day, two and a half years after president Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation ending slavery, Major General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, TX, and read a proclamation (General Order No. 3).
From that day forward, Blacks all around the Lone Star State held special festivities to recognize the importance of June 19. The events included rodeos, fishing, barbecuing, baseball and more. Strawberry (or red) soda became a favorite drink, and education, self-improvement and giving thanks was always stressed during the early celebrations.
As African Americans moved out of Texas, celebration of Juneteenth began to spread around the nation. Then the changing nature of American society impacted recognition of this day beginning in the early 1900s. African American children were no longer taught at home, and family-taught education gave way to classrooms and textbooks, which mentioned the Emancipation Proclamation but did not talk about the delay for Texas slaves nor did they discuss Juneteenth.
The Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s both boosted and dampened awareness of this important day. On one hand unity with all people was promoted, and issues like slavery were downplayed; and on the other hand, students who joined the fight for their rights connected this period with the historical struggles of their ancestors and began to wear Juneteenth Freedom buttons.
In 1968, the Poor People’s March on Washington, D.C. reinvigorated Juneteenth celebrations, and after this event, a number of activists returned home and began their own recognitions.
In 1979, Juneteenth took on added life, when Texas declared the day a state holiday. The legislation was introduced by Rep. Al Edwards, and the first state observance was held in 1980.
Today there are 31 states, including California, which proclaim June 19 as a day of observance.
“I just knew that if other people could be acknowledged formally, . . . we definitely should be, especially when we have gone through all of what we have come through to get to where we are today,” said Edwards, who believes the move by the Texas legislature helped spur interest in Juneteenth.
Rev. Ronald V. Myers, M.D., head of the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation, believes that making Juneteenth a holiday is not really necessary.
” . . . I notice when we have a holiday nobody pays attention to it. I want (Juneteenth) to be observed,” added Myers, who said that is why he has worked so hard to get various states to issue proclamations.
He then follows up by urging each state legislative body to set up a Juneteenth Commission.
Myers said the commissions should focus on getting Juneteenth and the true slavery story into curricula as well as economic development, tourism, and historic preservation.
In Texas, a Juneteenth commission has been instrumental in the erection of one monument in Galveston on the grounds of Ashton Villa, where Granger read the proclamation.
Another monument, is being developed on the grounds of the state capital.
Edwards said the commission is also working on establishing a Juneteenth museum with artifacts.
In Wyoming, Rev. William Pierce head of the Wyoming Juneteenth Heritage Association has been able to make some initial inroads with the schools.
During the past four years Rev. Pierce and his association have successfully put a book on the history of Juneteenth in all 173 of the state’s elementary schools and 23 public libraries.
“We started celebrating Juneteenth about 20 years ago, and the idea was unifying people through education. We’re trying to use the book to get our foot in the door and get more Black history in the schools,” said Pierce, who noted that African Americans make up about 1% of the state’s population.
Wyoming’s governor has issued a proclamation recognizing Juneteenth since about 2003.
In California, a proclamation has been issued by the governor’s office every year since 2005.
According to John Thompson, founder of Ontario-based Juneteenth America, the Black community is not totally aware of what Juneteenth means as far as being a day of liberation for African American people. That is one of the key reasons a Juneteenth commission is needed, he added.
“Have you ever read Frederick Douglass’ speech, What the Fourth of July was to slaves? We were slaves in 1776 . . . and we’re shooting off firecrackers as if we were free (at that time). Don’t’ you see a little conflict in that,” asked Thompson, who said that underscores Black folks need to understand the importance of acknowledging Juneteenth.
Rep. Edwards of Texas believes celebrating Juneteenth is necessary because it is part of African American history.
“To have a day, we can come together and acknowledge that we all have something in common, and that we’ve come a long way from where we were (is important). . . It’s very important for us to teach our children about Juneteenth, about themselves and about their history.”
Myers urges people to celebrate Juneteenth first by having a flag raising ceremony.
“Go to city hall, and get the city to fly the Juneteenth flag during the day, the week, the month of Juneteenth,” said Myers, adding that the goal is to get the message out, that Juneteenth really is America’s second Independence Day.
This year Thompson said the Juneteenth celebration he is involved with in Pomona, Calif., has tied its event to the preservation of Black music. Held at Ganesha Park, which is also the site of a commemorative plaque jointly sponsored by the City of Pomona and Juneteenth America.
But more than just the festivities, Juneteenth is about the culture and the heritage African Americans must work hard to preserve and perpetuate.