Juneteenth commemorates June 19, 1865, the day that Union Major General Gordon Granger rode into Galveston, Texas, and told enslaved people there of their emancipation from slavery, two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation. This year, more than ever, it marks an important moment in United States History, but many people are unfamiliar with this holiday and its long history.
Lacey Hunter is an instructor in the African American and African Studies Department at the School of Arts & Sciences-Newark (SASN), where she currently teaches African American Studies and Afro-American History. She received her M.A. in American History from Rutgers University-Newark and her Ph.D. from Drew University. Her dissertation focused on the role of African American religious ideologies on racial constructions. Hunter is actively involved in organizations that help urban students transition into college, as well as collaborative programs for “at-risk” college freshman, and is deeply committed to restructuring historical teaching and encouraging greater literacy rates among students of color.
She recently answered our questions about the history and significance of Juneteenth.
For African American people, Juneteenth is a reminder of their historical fight for unconditional freedom in the United States.
For the people who are not familiar with it, what is Juneteenth, and why is it so important?
Juneteenth is an African American celebration in honor and remembrance of the news delivered to the enslaved people of Texas, on June 19th, 1865, that the system of slavery had been legally abolished. In the aftermath of the Civil War, and through the years of the Reconstruction period, African Americans continued celebrating their freedom through Juneteenth. Their celebrations spread throughout the latter nineteenth century as freed people moved from Texas to Louisiana, Mississippi, California, Washington, and other states hoping for economic opportunities and a new start.
For African American people, Juneteenth is a reminder of their historical fight for unconditional freedom in the United States, as much as it is a symbolic manifestation of the ideals espoused on Independence Day. It reinforces the principles of democratic freedom emphasized during the American Revolutionary period and in some African American communities, Juneteenth is the replacement for July 4th celebrations. Beyond that, however, it remains important because it stands as a kind of reminder of the road African Americans in the US have traveled and that there is still a long way to go.
Why did it take so long for news to reach Texas of the slaves’ emancipation?
The end of the Civil War was not cut and dry, neither was the enforcement of the Emancipation Proclamation. Confederate resistance continued even after General Robert E. Lee surrendered and, in many instances, slave holders from Mississippi and Louisiana avoided losing their slaves by fleeing to Texas. There were also the local battles Unions soldiers incurred as they made their way to Texas, since some slave holders refused to surrender with or without a confederate army. Then there is the fact that Texas is an incredibly large state, so traveling from plantation to plantation, or estate to estate, to notify residents took time. There was also the fact that Union officials were generally tasked with assisting freed people as they transitioned to freedom—another difficult undertaking since Texas was the last state to receive assistance from the Freedman’s Bureau.
Is this something that is widely recognized/celebrated among the Black community? Has it been celebrated continuously since 1865 or is it a more recent celebration? What sort of events or traditions are incorporated into the festivities?
Today, Juneteenth is something many black communities celebrate or recognize, but there are several different styles of celebration that include small parades, dance shows, worship services, inter-faith dialogues, public history events, etc. The style of celebration really depends on regional culture and how that intersects with family traditions. For some it is a time to come together with family, kin-folk, and friends, you have been separated from for extended periods of time, for others it is a time to remember the history of black people in the United States, and for others it is a time to reflect on the meanings of liberation for black people in the US and around the world. And, while black communities have celebrated Juneteenth in different ways since 1866, there have been periods where its observance was minimal. The periods leading up to and after the Second World War is one of these times. Still, Juneteenth has always had a kind of cultural buoyancy in black communities and its meaning has evolved since the 1960s and 1970s when it converged with messages of solidarity and racial pride. I think, in light of our most recent history, it will take on an additional meaning as a time to deepen our relationships with allies and to reaffirm the value of black lives in the United States.
This holiday has been around for a long time. Why are more people suddenly learning about it for the first time this year?
We are living through a time when the nation is paying special attention to black digital media streams and social media feeds, as they try to understand (or at least be aware of) the heated discourse consuming the United States right now. People are also paying close attention to the on-going protests in response to the more recent killings of Atatiana Jefferson, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd and others. Out of the dialogue emerging from these feeds, I think, people are also picking up on some of the things black communities turn to as they work to remember, grieve, mobilize, and move forward. Juneteenth is one of the times that allows us to do each of these things and so we are seeing more discussion about it (and questions too) as the day approaches.
Do you teach about this in any of your courses? If so, what do your students seem most surprised by? What do you hope their takeaway is after learning about it?
When I include details about the birth of Juneteenth in my lectures, students are most surprised by the length of time it took for African Americans in Texas to hear news of their freedom from a federal official. I think this is largely a function of the speed of communication now. It’s hard for people who have had access to smart phones since they were toddlers, or used FaceTime and Skype since they were children, to imagine a world in which you might wait for days or weeks on one letter. Mostly, I hope that they appreciate why African American people embrace the day as they do and why it carries such emotional weight for so many.
Trump recently announced a rally on that date to be held in Tulsa on Juneteenth, which he then rescheduled after public criticism. What is the significance of Tulsa? And why was scheduling a rally there on Juneteenth so widely criticized?
The Greenwood district of Tulsa, Oklahoma was the site of a devastating race riot from May 31-June 1, 1921, during which a mob of white residents of Tulsa destroyed hundreds of black residential properties and businesses. The riot left thousands of African Americans homeless and diminished the wealth accumulated in the community. In the aftermath of the devastation, a brief state inquiry was performed (in which the death toll was under reported) and the documents related to the tragedy disappeared. It wasn’t until 1997 that the events were re-examined and officially added to the record of the state’s history. Needless to say, black communities around the nation were incensed by this since it underscored the complete disregard for their lives in the United States. In a lot of ways, scheduling a rally for our current president on Juneteenth, who many believe stands as a symbol of racial insensitivity and injustice, is reminiscent of the erasure that took place in Tulsa after the riot. It also underscores other recent examples of cultural insensitivity we have seen from the president like calling the coronavirus a “Chinese virus” or using military force on civil rights protestors. In sum, it underlines the willful ignorance and antagonism that has shaped the fight of many marginalized groups in the nation.
To embrace Juneteenth as a national holiday is to remind ourselves that change has never happened simultaneously for all people.
Is it important to recognize this as a holiday on a national scale? Why?
Juneteenth is most definitely an important holiday that should be recognized nationally. In a lot of ways, it reminds us as a nation that there are now, and always have been, multiple narratives in the development of our nation’s history. Many primary and secondary school students are taught that US independence came in the eighteenth century as the original thirteen colonies wrestled themselves away from what they believed was British tyranny. But this dimension of that story overlooks the reality that millions of Americans continued to live their lives under the tyranny of slavery or (if they were free people) the fear of kidnap and enslavement. It is important for all of us to realize that the counternarratives of our past do not invalidate the things we have learned already—they enhance them. To embrace Juneteenth as a national holiday is to remind ourselves that change has never happened simultaneously for all people. Instead, it happened in phases—over time—and it is okay to honor the journeys each demographic in the US has taken to see change manifest in their lifetimes.
What can those outside of the Black community who want to be allies do to celebrate or commemorate this event?
I think one of the best things any ally can do is come together with those they support and stay in community and honest conversation with them. If you want to see social justice and inclusivity materialize around you, continuously working to create safe spaces for honest and respectful dialog is critical. That work supports our ability to see ourselves and our nation clearly and compassionately.
Is there anything else you would like to add? Happy Juneteenth!
Lacey Hunter will be part of a panel of faculty and alumni from the Departments of African American and African Studies and History at Rutgers University-Newark in virtual conversation about the history and significance of Juneteenth on June 19, 2020 at 1pm ET. For more info visit https://sasn.rutgers.edu/juneteenth