Like the original Juneteenth celebrants, we are still fighting for black humanity
Juneteenth was a way for black people to honor the dawn of freedom while claiming their right to public space and participation in the American body
I did not grow up celebrating Juneteenth.
As the granddaughter of a proud World War II veteran, and working-class migrants from Barbados, however, I grew up in Massachusetts, hearing about black celebrations — West Indian Emancipation Day in early August, Carnival in the spring and the Fourth of July, when my grandfather and his fellow Prince Hall Masons flew the American flag and reminisced about being black men in the Navy during the Double V campaign.
But because my family lived and breathed in all aspects of black history, I knew about Juneteenth — that it was celebrated by many black folks, particularly in the South, to commemorate the day that Union general Gordon Granger stood on the balcony of Ashton Villa in Galveston, Texas, on June 19, 1865, to read aloud “General Order No. 3,” the formal announcement of the Emancipation Proclamation in Texas. Even if slavery ended six months after word of the Emancipation Proclamation came to Texas in 1865, I also knew that former slaves called the day Jubilee, a term used in the Book of Leviticus to describe the moment at which Hebrew slaves and prisoners were freed in Israel.
I grew up around black people steeped in black radical and intellectual traditions, so I never assumed that Juneteenth marked the end of slavery. America’s two centuries of racial slavery did not end until ratification of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution on Dec. 6, 1865. I also learned from my Black Panther uncle that the 13th Amendment stated that slavery and involuntary servitude were unconstitutional “except as punishment for a crime,” a constitutional loophole that I studied more in-depth during graduate school at Boston University when I decided to make a career out of writing about blackness, in all of its beauty and liabilities.
Since 1866, Juneteenth has been an annual holiday celebrated by African Americans across the country. It is a way for black people to claim freedom and the radical possibilities of black politics on our own terms. From its inception, Juneteenth has been linked to black political mobilization, a day when freedpeople galvanized their communities around electoral politics and self-determination, as well as celebration. By 1867, black people in Austin, Texas, used their jubilee to register black voters and garner support for the Union League, an organization that rallied freedpeople around Radical Reconstruction and the Freedmen’s Bureau. At a time when President Andrew Johnson admitted former Confederates into the Union without legal, civil or political protections for former slaves – and as violent Black Codes spread throughout the South – Juneteenth celebrations rallied black communities around the racial equality promised, yet ultimately unfulfilled, by Radical Reconstruction.
Through picnics, church gatherings and black veterans’ parades, Juneteenth was a way for black people to honor the dawn of freedom while claiming their right to public space and participation in the American body politic. In 1872, for instance, former slaves in Houston used the popularity of Juneteenth to raise money for their own park, a black space outside of the violence of rising segregation and anti-black violence.
With $1,000 raised for that year’s celebration, local black church members purchased land that is now known as Emancipation Park, and throughout the 20th century, generations of black Houstonians grew up celebrating Juneteenth there with cookouts, beauty pageants, rodeos and fireworks.
Currently, Juneteenth is the most significant black celebration of emancipation in the United States, with a cultural reach beyond America’s borders — in Coahuila, Mexico, the Mascogos, descendants of black Seminoles who escaped slavery in Florida, observe Juneteenth as an expression of Afro-Mexican culture and resistance to white supremacy. Because Juneteenth has been linked to black politics – from the use of the celebration to register black voters to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s use of the day for the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign — it is fitting that organizations such as Nike, Twitter and the NFL have chosen to observe Juneteenth 2020 in the context of international protests against police brutality and white supremacy. In this moment of international racial reckoning, however, it is important to realize that, much like the original celebrants in 1860s Texas, we are still at the beginning, not at the end, of our fight for black humanity, dignity and justice.
Juneteenth is a black celebration for black people who have been excluded from Western promises of equality and meritocracy. It behooves us, then, in this moment of popular appeals to all things black that we reflect on Frederick Douglass’ question in 1852, “What to the slave is the Fourth of July?”
Then, as now, black celebration speaks to many across the African diaspora for whom American independence has been more abstract than real. Juneteenth, however, is a day when black people celebrate the freedom that we have created on our own terms.
W.E.B. Du Bois: Black Reconstruction in America 1860 – 1880 (1997 Edition)
Gabrielle Foreman: Activist Sentiments: Reading Black Women in the Nineteenth Century (2009)
Mitch Kachun: Festivals of Freedom: Memory and Meaning in African American Emancipation Celebrations 1808 – 1915 (2003)