There’s been a lot of talk the last few days about Juneteenth — professional sports leagues, teams, and other companies have announced that they’re giving their employees the day off. Some made the announcement and called it a “day to reflect”, while others are encouraging employees to support Black-owned restaurants or Black authors.
But what exactly is Juneteenth and why are we hearing so much about it right now?
The short version is that Juneteenth, or Freedom Day, is a celebration of the day that the last enslaved Black Americans got word that they were free.
American schoolchildren are taught about the Emancipation Proclamation, but few learn about Juneteenth, a word made from combining June and nineteenth.
When President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, it was to go into effect nationwide on Jan. 1, 1863. But in the days before Twitter, it took a while for word to spread.
There are multiple theories, though, as to why it took nearly 2 1/2 years before Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger of the Union Army reached Galveston, Texas with General Order No. 3, the official declaration that all enslaved people were now free.
“The people of Texas are informed that in accordance with the Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired laborer.”
According to the website juneteenth.com, founded in part by former Texas state legislator Al Edwards, who authored the bill to make Juneteenth a paid holiday in the state, there’s a story that an earlier messenger charged with bringing news of freedom was murdered; another says slaveholders deliberately waited as long as possible to maintain their free labor, and still another says federal troops waited to share the proclamation so slave owners could have one last cotton harvest done by their enslaved humans.
At this point, there’s no definitive answer for the long delay.
When they finally did get the news, enslaved people — there were 250,000 in Texas — were shocked and ecstatic. Of course, they were free on paper, but not every slaveholder was quick to actually hand over freedom.
It was still a day worth celebrating. A year after Gen. Granger’s arrival, Black people in Galveston commemorated the anniversary and a new tradition was born. There’s been debate as to why June 19 was chosen; since the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect on January 1, that seems the more natural day. Frederick Douglass and other Black leaders in the North led huge jubilees just after midnight when it became official, but the proclamation only freed those enslaved in the Confederate states in areas liberated by Union troops.
Plus January 1 was already a holiday, New Year’s Day.
Black families in Texas have recognized the day ever since, but for years it wasn’t a formal holiday. That didn’t happen until 1980 when Texas, led by Edwards’ efforts, became the first state to officially recognize its significance. It was 11 years before a second state followed, Florida. Today only Hawaii and South Dakota don’t formally recognize Juneteenth.
So why is Juneteenth in the news so much this month? It’s not just because it’s time to recognize the day again, the 155th anniversary of the last group of enslaved Americans to get word they were free. The heartbreaking killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis last month has sparked a sustained national movement unlike any we’ve seen in at least 50 years, since the Civil Rights Movement. People of all ages, all races, backgrounds and identities are now chanting Black lives matter, saying it in word and showing it in action.
It’s also because leagues and corporations and many individuals in this country are hopefully, finally, ready to fully confront and change the racist reality of this country, the systemic inequities that continue to plague Black communities, and recognize the contributions Blacks have made throughout the history of the United States, a way to pay homage to a group of people that has been marginalized for hundreds of years.
The NFL, numerous NFL teams, NBA teams, and companies like Nike, Target and Twitter have announced that Juneteenth is now a paid company holiday; Nike is even closing its retail stores in honor of the day.
There are several petitions on change.org to make Juneteenth a national holiday, with the most popular at 315,000 signatures and counting. That petition was started by Opal Lee, a 93-year-old Texan who remembers a mob of white supremacists burning her family’s home in Fort Worth when she was 12, punishing the Lees for the audacity of moving into a white neighborhood. Four years ago, at 89, Lee walked from Fort Worth to Washington D.C. in an effort to get Juneteenth the national recognition it deserves.
For years the day was recognized only in African-American communities and rarely acknowledged in history books, so you’re forgiven if you hadn’t heard of the day until recently. A national holiday would provide an opportunity for more education and to expand history books beyond what too many children learn, i.e. “President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. The end.”
There’s a lot more to it than that.
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