Juneteenth is a celebration of Black history and freedom that started on June 19, 1865, in Galveston, Texas — a day of emancipation. This annual commemoration — of which many Americans are only dimly aware — has recently been brought to further prominence amid nationwide protests against racial injustice and the declaration by some companies, like Nike, Twitter, and Square, of Juneteenth as a holiday for all employees. Reflecting on the history behind the celebration, Celia E. Naylor, professor of history and Africana Studies, sheds light on the subject.

Celia E. NaylorWith interests in African American, Caribbean, Native American, and women’s history and literature, Naylor teaches a number of critical courses centered on the experiences of people of African descent, including Introduction to African American History, Introduction to the African Diaspora, Remembering Slavery: Critiquing Modern Representations of the Peculiar Institution, Black Feminism(s)/Womanism(s) and "Black Sexual Politics" in Contemporary U.S. Popular Culture. She has served as president of the board of directors of the Institute for Strategic and Equitable Development since its establishment in 2015. The nonprofit’s purpose is to promote impactful grant-making, investments, and economic development in communities of color through strategic planning, evaluation, project management, and technical assistance services.

In this Juneteenth “Break This Down” interview, Naylor explores the historic day that has been an official holiday in Texas since 1980 and the importance it holds today. 

What is the historical significance of Juneteenth?

The moniker “Juneteenth” is a portmanteau, a blending or combination, of the words June and nineteenth. Other names for Juneteenth have included Freedom Day, Jubilee Day, Texas Emancipation Day, and America’s Second Independence Day.

The Emancipation Proclamation, which was issued by President Abraham Lincoln on September 22, 1862, and became effective on January 1, 1863, declared all enslaved people within states or parts of states “in rebellion against the United States” to be “then, thenceforward, and forever free.” As part of the Confederate States of America, enslaved people of African descent in Texas were included in the scope of the proclamation. While thousands of enslaved people made their way to refugee camps throughout the South, including in Texas, to affirm their freedom, white and Native American enslavers from various areas in the South also utilized Texas as a site of refuge for themselves and the enslaved Africans and African Americans they brought with them. Approximately 250,000 enslaved people of African descent were living in Texas by the end of the Civil War. Yet enslavers within the state of Texas did not comply with the Emancipation Proclamation, and the limited Union forces in Texas made this proclamation essentially unenforceable throughout the state.

In order to rectify this predicament, on June 18, 1865, Major General Gordon Granger, commanding officer of the District of Texas, arrived in Galveston with more than 2,000 federal soldiers. The following day, June 19, 1865, Granger announced “General Order, Number 3” at Ashton Villa in Galveston. Federal troops then marched throughout Galveston reading the order at selected locations, including the courthouse, Custom House, and the “Negro Church” on Broadway — the name at that time of what is today known as the Reedy Chapel-AME Church. This general order specifically declared:

“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. The Freedmen are advised to remain at their present homes, and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts; and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.”

Both free and recently freed Africans and African Americans celebrated this watershed moment at that time. And, beginning in 1866, Africans and African Americans in Texas created festive gatherings on June 19th to annually celebrate the end of slavery. Such events included family reunions, picnics, barbeques, parades, speeches, political rallies, baseball games, rodeos, street fairs, food festivals, literary readings, musical performances, and formal balls. Elaborate meals were, and still remain, an important centerpiece at Juneteenth celebrations, including customary red-colored items like red velvet cake, red beans, red kola nut, and strawberry soda.

Although Juneteenth began in Texas, in the final decades of the 19th century into the early decades of the 20th century, celebrations extended to other southern states. As these celebrations became more popular at the turn of the 20th century, thousands of people attended annual Juneteenth events. Over the course of the 20th century, especially during World War II with the migration of African Americans from Texas to areas in the West, Juneteenth expanded to major cities along the West Coast, including Los Angeles, Oakland, and Seattle. Due to the cultural and logistical aspects of these gatherings, Black churches and civic organizations have primarily been the key organizers of Juneteenth celebrations.

In 1980, Texas was the first state to declare Juneteenth an official state holiday. Yet it was not until the late 20th century that individuals and organizations launched the Modern Juneteenth Movement, with the purpose of officially making “Juneteenth Independence Day” a national holiday in the United States. Between 2000 and 2011, most states and the District of Columbia acted to recognize Juneteenth as a state holiday or a day of observance. To date, there are three states that do not recognize Juneteenth as a state holiday or day of observance — Hawaii, North Dakota, and South Dakota. Juneteenth is still not a national holiday.

It is important to note that although erroneously assumed to be the case in popular culture, the Emancipation Proclamation did not emancipate the 4 million enslaved people in the entire country. It was the passage of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, ratified in December 1865, that abolished slavery and involuntary servitude in the U.S., except as punishment for a crime.

Why is it important to recognize this day?

It is important to recognize Juneteenth not in isolation as a singular celebration of emancipation. Rather, it must be framed within the broader context of the intermingling and overlapping celebrations of emancipatory acts related to people of African descent in this country and in connection with other emancipation processes in the Americas. Beginning early in the 19th century, other dates were utilized as celebratory markers for the emancipation of people of African descent. The diasporic recognition and reach of the Haitian Revolution, culminating with Haiti’s Declaration of Independence on January 1, 1804, resonated with enslaved and free people of African descent in the United States and throughout the Americas. The reverberations of the Haitian Revolution were particularly inspiring and generative, as Haiti became the first independent Caribbean nation, the first Black-led republic, and the only successful slave revolution in the Americas. Enslaved Africans and African Americans in the United States could not only celebrate January 1st as the beginning of a new year but also as a day to (re)imagine their own emancipation as it was realized in Haiti.

In addition, due to the United States’ abolition of its formal, official engagement in the trans-Atlantic slave trade on January 1, 1808, the first of January was also observed and celebrated as another crucial moment in the movement toward emancipation. Furthermore, with the Emancipation Proclamation’s declaration of January 1st as the effective date of emancipation, January 1st and the first few days of January became a particular time for community fêtes by freed Africans and African Americans.

However, even as white denizens in the United States have long celebrated July 4th as Independence Day, this “independence,” along racial, gender, and class fault lines, was not fully embraced by African Americans before the abolition of slavery. As Frederick Douglass waxed poetically in his 1852 speech on this very topic, the U.S. Declaration of Independence was deeply and inextricably embedded in the perpetual and multigenerational enslavement of Africans and African Americans on its soil. Indeed, even in the present day, some African Americans still invoke the hypocrisy of the United States’ Declaration of Independence within the historical contextualization of this country’s foundational tenet of slavery.

As America finally tries to confront its history — with recent protests and ongoing debates about civil rights — where does Juneteenth fit into the current climate?

The timing of this year’s celebration of Juneteenth has attracted a significant amount of attention in the news, as it occurs in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the ongoing uprisings across this country and our broader global community, and in light of a rescheduled political rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Juneteenth represents one of many celebratory dates associated with the emancipation of people of African descent in the United States. Although Juneteenth is associated with the end of the Civil War as well as abolition in the United States, we must also remember that enslaved Africans and their subsequent descendants, African Americans, had been engaged in their resistance to bondage before and during the Middle Passage as well as after arrival in colonial America. 

Beginning in the colonial era, enslaved people neither waited for the Civil War nor the Emancipation Proclamation to declare their right to own themselves, via myriad processes of self-emancipation. Such individual and collective self-emancipatory acts included absconding from their enslavers, murdering their enslavers, committing suicide as a portal of self-reclamation, creating free, maroon communities, and strategically organizing and engaging in slave revolts. The intellectual, political, activist work of Black abolitionists throughout the centuries of slavery served as a constant clarion call for an end to slavery. Emancipation, however, was not synonymous with freedom. And the current Movement for Black Lives exemplifies and embodies the ongoing, centuries-long struggle for the maximal realization of freedom for Blacks in this country.

As many have reiterated over the past few weeks, the recent national uprisings represent an inflection point in the United States. Even though the passage of the 13th Amendment was a declaration about the abolition of slavery, the Bill of Rights (the first 10 amendments of the U.S. Constitution) have not guaranteed the civil rights and liberties to all people of African descent in this country. This is evident in the historical groundings of the United States from its founding based on white liberty, white supremacy, and black bondage. It also reverberates in the contemporary realities and ramifications of systemic racism, of the pandemic of racism, in the United States.

The contemporary manifestations of the violences of “the afterlives of slavery” emerge, for example, in the persistence of state-sanctioned anti-Black violence and mass incarceration; the health disparities related to medical diagnostics, access to health care, and treatment; the racial inequities and repercussions linked to food deserts and food insecurity; the racial resegregation in housing and public education; and the disproportionate unemployment rates along racial, gender, and class lines. The intersectional and structural dimensions of these issues only serve to exacerbate the vulnerability of Black lives. For example, the systemic processes of environmental racism deleteriously impact low-income and working-class Black communities and compound the precarious nature of safe housing, affordable transportation, and reasonable health care options in these communities.

The extended call for an authentic and wholly complete emancipation continues today. It is often articulated as a collective cry for freedom and a demand for the recognition of Black humanity. Having only a very short time ago confronted fierce resistance on myriad fronts to demands that “Black Lives Matter,” we are currently in the midst of nationwide and global uprisings in support of the Movement for Black Lives (M4BL). Countless chants, posters, corporate statements, and streets proclaim boldly and unequivocally that “Black Lives Matter.” And yet “Black Lives Matter” remains a dream still deferred in 2020, still hopefully to be realized in this new century. Is this the time, the moment, the movement when the humanity of Black people will actually and finally be accepted, when Black people will be accepted? 



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