Saturday, June 19, 2021

Happy Juneteenth 2021

Juneteenth Flag
I want to wish everyone a happy Juneteenth, which this week officially became a Federal holiday in the United States. For those of you who are unfamiliar with Juneteenth, the holiday is rooted in events following the end of the Civil War. It was on September 22 1862 that President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed slaves in the Confederacy. As might be expected, enforcement of the Emancipation Proclamation relied on the advancement of Union troops. As Texas was the most remote states of the Confederacy and had only a few Union troops there, it was not until June 19 1865, a little over two months after Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomatax, that slaves were freed in Galveston, Texas.

On June 19 1865 Major General Gordon Granger of the Union Army arrived in Galveston, Texas. He read General Order No. 3, the order freeing the slaves, first at Union Army Headquarters at the Osterman Building and then at the 1861 Customs House and Courthouse and the Negro Church (now Reedy Chapel-AME Church). While slaves throughout the states that had formed the Confederacy were now free, slavery still existed in the United States in two border states that had not seceded from the Union, Kentucky and Delaware. The slaves in those states would not be freed until December 18 1865 upon the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery in the United States.

Regardless, Juneteenth became a holiday almost immediately. One year after the slaves in Galveston were freed, on June 19 1866, freedmen in Texas celebrated was called "Jubilee Day." Over the years its name would vary. In 1874 the The Austin Statesman referred to it as "Emancipation Day." The same newspaper called it an "Emancipation Celebration" in 1875. "Juneteenth" itself is a blend of "June" and "Nineteenth," and was likely in use before it first appeared in print. It first appeared in print in 1890, when the Black newspaper The Beaumont Recorder referred to the holiday as "Juneteenth." The Gavelston Daily News quoted The Beaumont Recorder that year (for more information on how Juneteenth got its name, I recommend you read Ben Zimmer's article in The Wall Street Journal, "How the 'Juneteenth' Name--and Holiday--Spread."

Juneteenth received official recognition rather early. In 1938 then Governor of Texas James V. Allred issued a proclamation proclaiming June 19 as "Emancipation Day." As Blacks from Texas moved elsewhere during the period of the Great Migration, celebration of Juneteenth spread throughout the United States, to places as far away as Los Angeles and San Francisco. It was in the 1970s that the Texas legislature declared Juneteenth a "holiday of significance." Since then it has been recognized by other states. It was in 1996 that legislation to recognize Juneteenth as a Federal holiday was first introduced into the United States House of Representatives.

As Juneteenth spread throughout the United States, so too did its impact on popular culture. Ralph Ellison's novel Juneteenth was published in 1999. In 2016 the TV show Atlanta featured an episode centred on the holiday entitled "Juneteenth." The following year the sitcom Black-ish also aired an episode about the holiday entitled "Juneteenth." Last year, the movie Miss Juneteenth, about an young woman who enters the local "Miss Juneteenth" pageant, was released. Last night, ABC aired a special Juneteenth episode of their documentary series Soul of a Nation.

Much of the credit for Juneteenth becoming a Federal holiday must be given to Opal Lee, often described as "the Grandmother of Juneteenth." An educator in Texas, she began her campaign to have Juneteenth decades ago. Her goal was quite simply to bring Juneteenth to the rest of the nation. She began walking 2 1/2 miles each year on Juneteenth, 2 1/2 miles for the 2 1/2 years between the Emancipation Proclamation and the emancipation of the slaves in Galveston. Eventually she would be invited to Juneteenth celebrations in such diverse cities as Shreveport, Louisiana; Texarkana; Madison, Wisconsin; Milawaukee; Atlanta; and yet others.

For me Juneteenth is a welcome addition to our Federal holidays. When my brother lived in Texas he told me about the history of Juneteenth and the celebrations there. Unlike some of our Federal holidays, Juneteenth has real meaning to it and it celebrates an important event in our history. For me Juneteenth is not just a significant day for the Black community, but for all Americans.

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