What is Juneteenth?
You learned about the Emancipation Proclamation in school, but you did not learn that enforcing the law which was to free America’s slaves was imperfectly enforced over the years to come.
Abraham Lincoln signed the Proclamation into law on September 22, 1862. But the Civil War continued to rage within our nation’s borders, so that the law did nothing for slaves held in Confederate States until Union troops progressively achieved victory in the South.
Juneteenth marks the day that Union Army General Gordon Granger, having vanquished the Confederate forces in Texas, officially announced freedom for slaves in the remote southern state.
Black Americans all over the country have celebrated Juneteenth for over one hundred years. It is only as of yesterday, June 17th, 2021, that America will recognize the momentous date as a federal holiday nationwide. That new holiday is tomorrow!
Why is Juneteenth significant?
Juneteenth represents many things about the United States’ fraught history with domestic race relations.
Yes, the holiday commemorates a major milestone in the history of the continuing struggle to abolish slavery. But it also represents how much work, done piecemeal and with great difficulty, remains for us to do to ensure Black Americans have real equity in America.
Not only did it take many years after the Civil War for the American government to enforce abolition, but former slaves and the generations that succeeded them still enjoyed only partial rights. Moreover, the Union itself did not stop practicing slavery immediately after the Emancipation Proclamation.
Equality remained a phantom for Black people seeking their claim to the Declaration’s promise of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. For evidence of that, we have only to look to the Civil Rights Movement in the middle of the last century, the Black Lives Matter movement today, and the resistance both have faced from the get-go.
Today, in the wake of continuing police violence against unarmed Black men, Juneteenth is a clarion call for us to celebrate progress and recommit ourselves to fighting for more progress.
How can you celebrate?
In Black communities around the country, Juneteenth has been a day of celebration for over one hundred years. For the rest of the country, it has been an obscure phenomenon. Not this year. Protests, ceremonies, and public events are planned in major cities in every corner of the nation.
Traditions include public readings of the Emancipation Proclamation, singing traditional songs such as "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" and "Lift Every Voice and Sing", and reading of works by noted Black writers, such as Ralph Ellison and Maya Angelou.
Celebrations also include picnics, rodeos, street fairs, cookouts, family reunions, park parties, historical reenactments, blues festivals and Miss Juneteenth contests.
If Juneteenth is new to you—odds are it is—start by learning!