Juneteenth marks an important and history-changing day in Black history and American history. On June 19, 1865, federal troops marched down to Galveston, Texas, took control of the state, and ensured that slaves were freed. This event was two years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.
In reality, the proclamation did not instantly free any enslaved people. The proclamation only applied to places under Confederate control and not to slave-holding border states or rebel areas already under Union control. However, as Northern troops advanced into the Confederate South, many enslaved people found shelter behind Union lines.
General Order No. 3
With many slave owners fleeing to the Confederate States like Texas, they were able to maintain control over their slaves and continue the practices of purchasing, abusing, and overworking them.
But once Union troops invaded and took over Texas, General Gordon Granger was put into place and came to his first order as general: “The people of Texas are informed that per 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.”
Of course, this order was met with mixed reactions. Former slaves rejoiced as they were freed from their captivity and sprinted to get away from the plantation many called home for years. Many slaves left the state of Texas, some chose the North as a logical destination, while others migrated to Louisiana, Arkansana, and Oklahoma, among the neighboring states, to reconnect with lost family members.
On the other hand, many Texans had a hard time adjusting to the new former slave owner and former slave dynamic that was taking place. Slave owners were reluctant to give up workers as it would mean the end of free labor, and they would have to hire the same slaves as employees. Nonetheless, most slave owners adjusted and eventually embraced the new way of life.
Juneteenth day of celebration
As they were being freed from bondage, many slaves who stayed in Texas had big celebrations to bask in their newfound freedom. These events included festivals, rodeos, fishing, baseball, pageants, barbequing, and other activities. Food dishes were also part of the celebration. Some tasted their first delicacies such as lamb, pork, chicken, and beef, which were not available to the everyday person. Other food dishes included corn, cornbread, collard greens, cabbage, black-eyed peas, potatoes, yams, and sweet potatoes. So many Black family Sunday dishes derived from the food that was served during this historical celebration.
Another Juneteenth tradition is the prominent feature of red foods such as soda, punch, hibiscus tea, red velvet cake, red beans and rice, hot sauce, and fruits (strawberry, watermelon). Red foods were sacred because they were such a rarity. Many people, especially slaves, rarely enjoyed them in peace.
The importance of the color red was also derived from the Caribbean as many slaves came from there. The Yoruba of Nigeria, Benin, Togo and the Kongo of Angola, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Republic of Congo, and Gabon placed great philosophical and spiritual value on the color red. To these different nations, the color red could symbolize sacrifice, transition, or power.
Society’s reaction to Juneteenth
Over the years, some have met these Juneteenth celebrations with ignorance. For example, some rivers, creeks and rural areas were blocked off so festivals couldn’t take place and activities such as fishing and horseback riding couldn’t happen. African-Americans turned to church grounds to host celebrations and over time they purchased land and dedicated the new land for Juneteeth celebrations.
One of the earliest documented land purchases in the name of Juneteenth was organized by Rev. Jack Yates. This fund-raising effort yielded $1,000 and made possible the purchase of Emancipation Park in Houston, Texas.
In Mexia, the local Juneteenth organization purchased Booker T. Washington Park, which had become 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, it seems most allowed their workers the day off and some even made donations of food and money. (Visit Juneteenth.com/history).
The forgotten celebration
In the early 1900’s, economic and cultural divides led to the celebration being forgotten by many. Schools did not teach about the historical moment that took place in Texas in 1865, just Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation signaling the ending of slavery. There is also little to no mention of General Granger’s order to end slavery in Texas.
The Great Depression caused many farmland workers to lose their jobs and move to city-like places looking for work. The lack of workers among the farmers made farm owners reluctant to grant their workers the day off to celebrate, thus leading to very few participants. Patriotism was also on the rise, which led to July 4th, as the only day that many were able to celebrate independence.
The Civil Rights Era brought back what some will call a resurgence of the holiday as many protesters during this time wore Juneteenth colors or attire. This is most evident in the Atlanta Civil Rights protest that took place in the 1960s. In 1968, Juneteenth received recognition during the Poor People’s March, going to Washington D.C. Rev. Ralph Abernathy’s call for people of all races, creeds, economic levels, and professions to come to Washington to show support for the poor. Many of these attendees returned home and initiated Juneteenth celebrations in areas previously absent from such activities. Now Minneapolis and Milwaukee are home to the two largest Juneteenth celebrations in modern times.
On Jan. 1, 1980, an African-American state legislator of Texas, Al Edwards, blazed the path for Juneteenth as he was the first person to introduce and get a bill passed declaring Juneteenth as a recognized state holiday.
Juneteenth in modern times
Juneteenth became a national holiday by order of President Joe Biden. On June 17, 2021, the White House passed the legislation into law that made Juneteenth the eleventh national holiday. The ceremony, which took place in the East Room, included some 80 members of Congress—including members of the Congressional Black Caucus, local elected officials, community leaders, and activists. The President, specifically noted that Opal Lee, the activist who campaigned to establish Juneteenth as a federal holiday, was in attendance.