“What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all the other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity.” –Frederick Douglass, Rochester, N.Y., July 5, 1852
The Fourth of July is a nationally recognized and celebrated holiday, commemorating American independence and freedom from Great Britain.
But, this freedom did not apply to everyone. Our great nation “conceived in liberty,” was born in chains and raised on plantations. As many non-Black Americans now work to confront the deep roots of racism in the United States, it is important to understand our nation’s troubling past.
Origins of Juneteenth
Juneteenth is a 155-year old holiday celebrating the emancipation of African Americans from slavery in the United States.
It does not honor the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, or the end of the Civil War, as many would think. The Emancipation Proclamation came into effect on January 1, 1863, declaring all enslaved peoples in the Confederacy free — on the condition that the Union won the war. With this single document, barely 700 words in length, the legal status of 4 million slaves in the Confederacy was changed.
But, conditions in the South did not change and many slave owners, obviously, withheld this information.
The last battle of the Civil War was fought in 1865, two years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed. Texas remained a stronghold in the South even after the final battle of the war, and some 250,000 enslaved African American slaves were not made aware of their freedom. They only learned of it when Union General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, on June 19, 1865 and announced that President Abraham Lincoln had issued a proclamation freeing them.
Today, there remain varying accounts of why the news of freedom did not reach Texas sooner. It is also important to note that Texas remained a Confederate state until 1865, when Robert E. Lee finally surrendered to the Union Army, so they would not have enforced Lincoln’s proclamation.
On that day, June 19, Granger read aloud General Order, N0. 3: “The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor.”
Granger’s announcement was met with equal parts terror, confusion and excitement. But, newly freed slaves finally had a day to rally around. They transformed this day of unheeded military orders into their Independence Day.
Most Black folks knew that it was not a celebration of victory or triumph — but rather an acknowledgment that change was possible. There was still work to be done. In its 1866 state constitution, Texas refused to ratify the Thirteenth Amendment*, abolishing slavery and involuntary servitude. But, because two-thirds majority ratified it, it was adopted as federal legislature to the United States Constitution.
* (A loophole in the Thirteenth Amendment, allowing incarcerated persons to be subjected to slavery, would later cause problems for Black Americans. Mass incarceration in the United States exploded in the 20th century, essentially once again enslaving millions of people. More about this here. Or, you can watch the documentary, 13th, by filmmaker Ava DuVernay on Netflix.)
As newly freed Texans moved to neighboring states, June 19, Juneteenth as it came to be known, celebrations spread across the United States. The celebrations became a space for reassurance, prayer and the gathering of lost family members. They reread the Emancipation Proclamation, gathered around the barbecue pit to honor slave food delicacies, played games and held the occasional rodeo. African American historian Henry Louis Gates Jr. notes that it was used as an occasion “to measure progress against freedom and teaching rising generations the values of self-improvement and racial uplift.”
Early Juneteenth celebrations were a continued reminder of the long road to freedom African Americans would still need to endure. In some instances, white Southerners forbade Black people from using public spaces for their Juneteenth celebrations. So, they instead gathered near rivers and lakes, eventually raising enough money to buy their own celebration sites. In 1872, the Rev. Jack Yates and a group of fellow formerly enslaved people raised $800 to buy the land to make a yearly space to celebrate Juneteenth, according to the Houston Chronicle. The park was fittingly named, Emancipation Park, and it became an official city park in 1918. It is Houston’s oldest park, and continues to hold Juneteenth celebrations (last year thousands of people celebrated there!).
The holiday’s survival was dependent on its move across state lines, brought upon by the Great Migration. In her book The Warm of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration Isabel Wilerson writes, “The people from Texas took Juneteenth Day to Los Angeles, Oakland, Seattle, and other places they went.”
But, the Smithsonian Magazine writes that, “in the bitterness of the Reconstruction and Jim Crow eras, few states of the former Confederacy had any interest in celebrating emancipation. And as many African Americans migrated north, especially in the Depression era, Juneteenth became a largely forgotten vestige of the Civil War era.”
It was the tumultuous events of the ’60s that brought Juneteenth back into focus. After Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968, Rev. Ralph Abernathy promised to fulfill his Poor People’s March, a campaign meant to address the employment and housing problems of the poor throughout the United States. The March fell short of its goals, and organizers decided to cut it short, instead holding a Juneteenth celebration. William Wiggins Jr., a professor Emeritus of Folklore at Indiana University, explained in an interview with Smithsonian Magazine that his theory is delegates from the march took the idea of celebrating Juneteenth back to their respective communities. After that summer, instances of Juneteenth started popping up in newspapers around the country.
But, until recently, Juneteenth was still not widely recognized outside the Black community and is largely ignored in school curricula.
In 1980, Texas became the first state to recognize June 19 as a state holiday, although the state’s government offices still do not close for the day. As of 2020, Juneteenth is recognized by 46 of the 50 U.S. states and Washington D.C., and there is an effort underway by voter mobilization non-profit, NextGen America, for federal recognition. Also this month, companies like Twitter, Square, Vox Media, Nike and the N.F.L. have recognized Juneteenth as a company holiday — designating it a paid day off.
Now, Juneteenth celebrations take place across the country. Organizations such as the Smithsonian Institution and the Henry Ford Museum have begun sponsoring Juneteenth-centered activities, with the mission to promote and cultivate knowledge and appreciation for African American history and culture.
Today, celebrations are still centered around the same traditions: religious services, storytelling, music, food (barbecue!) and honoring Black culture. The New York Times also published an article about Juneteenth food traditions, pointing to the inclusion of red foods as “crimson symbol[s] of ingenuity and resilience in bondage.” Some celebrations are more spiritual and intimate, used as a day of meditation and multicultural prayer.
It is also used as a reminder of the work that still needs to be done to achieve racial equality in America and of the life-threatening issues, such as police brutality and mass incarceration, that continue to plague Black communities.
This year, Juneteenth falls amidst a reignited civil rights movement and protests around police brutality in the wake of the brutal murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade and countless others. In a national reckoning around systemic oppression in the United States, it is crucial to understand the 400 years that have led to it.
How to Celebrate
For non-Black folks wanting to support the Black community this Juneteenth, the most impactful actions you can take are to educate yourself, grapple with the ways white privilege has functioned in your own life and commit to lifelong anti-Racist practices. We have rounded up some ways to support the Black community in Chicago and Marin County, including organizations to donate to, books to read and local businesses to support. It is also important to do research into local organizations that may be receiving less funding or national recognition. An easy place to start, is by simply signing this petition to make Juneteenth a federally recognized holiday.
If you are hoping to attend a Juneteenth celebration, remember to take proper health precautions, as we are still in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. Many celebrations have also been moved virtually as a result of COVID-19, which has been disproportionately affecting Black communities across the country. It is also incredibly important for non-Black folks to be respectful of organizers and participants, and not to center themselves in the celebrations.
Assata Shakur said, “It is our duty to fight for our freedom. It is our duty to win. We must love each other and support each other. We have nothing to lose but our chains.”
To my fellow white folks: it is also our responsibility to help break these chains, because we are the ones that put them there.
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You can visit the official Juneteenth website to read about past Juneteenth events, to find one in your area. There is also a virtual Juneteenth Music Festival, being held on June 18, that you can tune into here.
Chicago restaurants are also participating in the celebrations.
More from Better:
- How to Help YWCA Evanston/North Shore Continue Their Equity Work at This Crucial Moment in Our History
- Black Lives Matter: 5 Ways to Help in Chicago Right Now
- Murder Hornets: Do We Need to Worry?
Madison Muller is the Assistant Digital Editor at Better. A recent graduate of Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, she approaches our contemporary media environment with compassion and candor. She is interested in writing about the intersectionality of social justice issues in marginalized communities and environmentalism. Madison proudly supports Action Now, a community organization that empowers and uplifts residents on Chicago’s West Side.
She also encourages reading and supporting the TRiiBE, a digital media platform reshaping the narrative of Black Chicago, and The Marshall Project, a non-profit news organization that seeks to create and sustain a sense of national urgency about the U.S. criminal justice system.