Juneteenth Celebration

Juneteenth reasserts role of Black freedom in U.S. historical narrative

By

Suzanne Wilson

Juneteenth, a portmanteau of the words “June” and “nineteenth,” was born out of what was once referred to as the “peculiar institution” of the United States.

It references the day 155 years ago this year when a quarter of a million people — still held captive in the years after the Emancipation Proclamation — walked away from the fields in which they were forced to toil; out of the houses in which they served under duress; and onto the roads they constructed to begin a new but uncertain future as free men, women and children.

It has been called America’s “second Independence Day." But for many, particularly those whose ancestry and lineage have been all but scrubbed from the annals of American history due to 250 years of that peculiar institution, Juneteenth has come to represent a true day of independence from slaveholding rule.

Duku AnokyeDuku Anokye 

Growing in observances and recognition, Juneteenth is recognized as a state holiday or observance in 46 states. But it has been a slow journey to awareness — due in part to active efforts by some to keep Juneteenth out of the history books, said Duku Anokye, an associate professor of Africana language, literature and culture in the School of Humanities, Arts and Cultural Studies at Arizona State University's New College.

Anokye — in collaboration with her sister Rebecca Hankins, a librarian and curator of Africana resources at Texas A&M University — recently shared more about the history and significance of Juneteenth with ASU Now:

Question: What is Juneteenth, and what is the tradition behind the observance of the day?

Answer: Juneteenth, also called Freedom Day, is the combining of June and the 19th day to commemorate the day enslaved Africans were freed in Texas in 1865. Texas was the last Confederate state to enforce the Emancipation Proclamation. It is celebrated as the day the last enslaved Africans were freed, two years and six months after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation freeing all enslaved Africans in the 10 remaining Confederate states on Jan. 1, 1863.

Q: Why was the Emancipation Proclamation not enforced in Texas?

A: At the time of Lincoln signing the Emancipation Proclamation, there were no Union soldiers in Texas to enforce the order. Many of the white slave owners fled to Texas in the hopes of using it as a sanctuary and garrison against the Union, a place where they could maintain their status. On June 18, Union Army Gen. Gordon Granger arrived at Galveston Island with 2,000 federal troops to occupy Texas on behalf of the federal government. June 19 is the day the enslaved Africans were finally informed of their free status. Here is the proclamation, titled General Order No. 3, read by General Granger: "The people of Texas are informed that in accordance with a 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."

Q: What happened to the belatedly freed men and women of Texas after they received the news of their emancipation?

A: Many of the freed enslaved men and women claimed land left after owners abandoned them to the Union Army. The newly freed celebrated by dragging their former slave cabins away from the slave quarters and into their own fields. Women reduced their labor in the fields and could now devote more time to childcare and their own homes. Now families could work for their own prosperity and livelihoods. This ended when President Andrew Johnson, himself a former slave owner, restored many of the liberated lands to the former slave owners. This led many freed people to enter into sharecropping — that became another way of forcing them to work for former masters that inevitably caused them to lose their land and independence.

Q: How was Juneteenth first celebrated?

A: Stories are told of freed people wearing their best clothes and walking everywhere so they could be seen as free. Many left their plantations as a symbol of their freedom. Others traveled to nearby states attempting to find family members sold away. It was a time of celebration and uncertainty. For years, African Americans celebrated Juneteenth by returning to Galveston, Texas, as an annual pilgrimage to the place where they first learned of their freedom. They went to share prayer, food and celebration.

Q:  It feels like we are at a point in time culturally where Americans are taking a deeper look at history and some of the narratives that have been left out of history books. Where does Juneteenth fall in with those “lost” narratives?  

A: Juneteenth is viewed as a Texas-centered event; it is not taught in history textbooks around the U.S. The United Daughters of the Confederacy — founded in 1894, and whose stated mission was to commemorate the Confederacy and erect memorials to them — and also the Ku Klux Klan are directly responsible for ensuring that the stories in K–12 textbooks were changed and excluded any mention of Juneteenth history. They worked strategically with legislatures and school committees to change the narrative of the Confederacy to that of “states’ rights,” “the Lost Cause mythology,” and “heroism” rather than one of traitors and enslavers. They pushed to erect statues to Confederate symbols and generals all throughout the country and pushed to change textbook portrayals of enslaved Africans to happy and docile in plantation life, but savage and immoral as freed people. This perception has continued, as evidenced by the massive social protests that we are witnessing today in response to this brutalization of people of color and particularly people of African descent. It is worth noting that there has been a growth in Juneteenth observances around the country in the past few decades, including here in Arizona. 

For more on the history of Juneteenth: Read our Q&A with Professor Calvin Schermerhorn of the School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies.

Top photo: Participants march over Market Street near Independence Mall during the annual Juneteenth parade in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on June 23, 2018. Juneteenth, or Freedom Day, commemorates the announcement of the overdue abolition of slavery in Texas on June 19, 1865. Photo by Bastiaan Slabbers/Getty Images