Celebrating Juneteenth

By Page H. Gifford

On June 17, 2021, President Biden signed the first Juneteenth National Independence Day Act into law, establishing Juneteenth as a national holiday.

“Now that it is a federal holiday, it has opened up for people to learn why this is an important celebration. Fluvanna is beginning to talk about a celebration in the future, hopefully in 2023,” said Mozell Booker, a member of the Board of Supervisors, and chair of the NAACP Education Committee. 

The aim of Booker and the committee and the local NAACP branch is to provide a fuller understanding of our American history.  “Juneteenth is an important reminder that our laws have not always meant freedom for everyone. It is also a reminder of promises made and promises broken, and it’s important to learn the full, complex truth about the United States to help us understand our shared history as we continue to work for a more just society.”

Juneteenth is the oldest nationally celebrated remembrance of the ending of slavery in the United States. Two and a half years after President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, on June 19, 1865, Union soldiers, led by Major General Gordon Granger, landed at Galveston, Texas with news that the war had ended and that the enslaved were now free. The Emancipation Proclamation had little impact on the Texans due to the minimal number of Union troops to enforce the new executive order. However, with the surrender of General Lee in April of 1865, and the arrival of General Granger’s regiment, the forces were able to defeat the resistance.

There have been many versions explaining the two-year delay in letting those enslaved  hear about their freedom. Some versions included a messenger who was murdered on his way to Texas with the news of freedom, or claims that the news was deliberately withheld by the enslavers to maintain the labor force on the plantations. One of the most creative theories was that federal troops were waiting for the slave owners to reap the benefits of one last cotton harvest before going to Texas to enforce the Emancipation Proclamation. None of these claims had any truth to them. However, more than likely President Lincoln’s authority over the rebellious states was questionable. 

One of General Granger’s first orders of business was to read to Black Texans General Order Number 3, which explained what their newfound freedom meant. 

The celebration of June 19 became “Juneteenth” and grew with more participation from descendants. It continued to be celebrated in Texas decades later, with many former slaves and descendants making an annual pilgrimage back to Galveston.

In the early years, little interest existed outside the Black community to participate in the celebrations. There was some resistance, including barring the use of public property for the festivities. Most of the festivities took place in rural areas and on church grounds. Eventually, as African Americans became landowners, the land was donated and dedicated for these festivities. One of the earliest documented land purchases in the name of Juneteenth was organized by Rev. Jack Yates, who raised $1,000, and purchased Emancipation Park in Houston, Texas. In Mexia, Texas,  the local Juneteenth organization purchased Booker T. Washington Park, which became the Juneteenth celebration site in 1898. There are accounts of Juneteenth activities being interrupted and halted by White landowners demanding that their laborers return to work. However, most allowed their workers the day off and some even made donations of food and money. The annual celebrations continually increased throughout the decades. In Booker T. Washington Park, as many as 20,000 African Americans attended a weeklong celebration, making it one of the state’s largest attended events.

A decline in Juneteenth celebrations began in the early 1900s due to economic and cultural influence. Classroom and textbook education overshadowed traditional home and family-taught practices, inhibiting the interest of the youth because of less emphasis on the lives of former slaves. Classroom textbooks stated Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863, as the date signaling the end of slavery, mentioning little or nothing of the impact of General Granger’s arrival on June 19th. 

Other factors included leaving rural areas and farms because of the Depression. Many fled to cities to find work, and employers were less eager to give time off to celebrate. Thus, unless June 19th fell on a weekend or holiday, there was very little participation.

A resurgence of  interest in Juneteenth’s meaning came with the Civil Rights movement. Many  African American youth struggling for racial equality linked these struggles to the historical conflict of their ancestors. Student demonstrators involved in the Atlanta civil rights campaign in the early 1960s wore Juneteenth freedom buttons. Again in 1968, Juneteenth was referenced through the Poor People’s March to Washington D.C. After returning home, many of these attendees initiated Juneteenth celebrations in areas that did not celebrate.

On  January 1, 1980, Juneteenth became an official state holiday in Texas through the efforts of Al Edwards, an African American state legislator.

      “Juneteenth has been celebrated for years by the majority of states since the 1990s.  I attended the first Juneteeth celebrate done in Charlottesville at PVCC in 2000,” said Booker, “My memory of the first Juneteenth Celebration at PVCC was  the African drumming, going into the woods led by Africans who live in the area, listening to the story about the Middle Passage where millions of Africans were transported to America as part of the triangular slave trade.  The Middle Passage could last for 80 days on ships,” said Booker. “Our ancestors endured unthinkable hardship, but we are where we are today, successful even in our struggles because of their endurance.”

   Institutions such as the Smithsonian, the Henry Ford Museum, and others have begun sponsoring Juneteenth-centered activities. In recent years, several local and national Juneteenth organizations have emerged and all of them with the mission to promote and cultivate knowledge and appreciation of African American history and culture.

    “Any time you can discover unknown historical events, folks want to know all the details.  We must bring Juneteenth to Fluvanna to have that conversation,” said Booker. “This event can bring other African American history to life. Lots of people are excited about the possibility of this celebration in Fluvanna.”

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