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date: 28 November 2021

Juneteenth and Emancipation Celebrationsfree

Juneteenth and Emancipation Celebrationsfree

  • Emily BlanckEmily BlanckRowan University - History

Summary

Emancipation celebrations in the United States have been important and complicated moments of celebration and commemoration. Since the end of the slave trade in 1808 and the enactment of the British Emancipation Act in 1834 people of African descent throughout the Atlantic world have gathered, often in festival form, to remember and use that memory for more promising futures. In the United States, emancipation celebrations exploded after the Civil War, when each local community celebrated their own experience of emancipation. For many, the commemoration took the form of a somber church service, Watch Night, which recognized the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. Juneteenth, which recognized the end of slavery in Texas on June 19, 1865, became one of the most vibrant and longstanding celebrations.

Although many emancipation celebrations disappeared after World War I, Juneteenth remained a celebration in most of Texas through the late 1960s when it disappeared from all cities in the state. However, because of the Second Great Migration, Texans transplanted in Western cities continued the celebration in their new communities far from Texas. In Texas, Juneteenth was resurrected in 1979 when state representative, later Congressman, Al Edwards successfully sponsored a bill to make Juneteenth a state holiday and campaigned to spread Juneteenth throughout the country. This grassroots movement brought Juneteenth resolutions to forty-six states and street festivals in hundreds of neighborhoods. Juneteenth’s remarkable post-1980 spread has given it great resonance in popular culture as well, even becoming a focus of two major television episodes in 2016 and 2017.

Subjects

  • Civil War and Reconstruction
  • Slavery and Abolition
  • Late 19th-Century History
  • 20th Century: Pre-1945
  • 20th Century: Post-1945
  • African American History
  • Southern History

In the United States, African Americans have long recognized the end of slavery as a key moment of celebration and commemoration. Since the end of the slave trade in 1808 and the enactment of British Emancipation Act on August 1, 1834, which gradually emancipated enslaved peoples throughout the British Empire, memorializing the moment of emancipation had become a significant event.1 Black people throughout the Anglo-American world recognized British abolition. During the Civil War, African Americans spent New Year’s Eve 1862 waiting expectantly on Jubilee for President Lincoln to sign and release the Emancipation Proclamation. Black communities have recognized its signing ever since in an observance called Watch Night. But Lincoln’s Proclamation only freed enslaved Africans in Confederate territories that the Union did not control, so different communities throughout the South noted and commemorated the day that the Union army occupied and emancipated their people.

Of these statewide and regional holidays, Juneteenth, Texas’s celebration, has arisen as the most recognized Emancipation Day in the United States. Juneteenth is an annual festival or holiday commemorating the day in Galveston, Texas, when Colonel Gordon Granger announced the end of Texas slavery on June 19, 1865. A year later, on June 19, 1866, the local black community of Galveston commemorated the announcement with a celebration. Within a year or two, this celebration spread throughout the state of Texas and the region as a way to recognize emancipation.

During the 20th century, black Texans spread this holiday throughout the United States as they emigrated out of the state, but it really became a nationally significant commemoration in the 1990s and 2000s when a grassroots movement sought to recognize Juneteenth as a state holiday throughout the country. As of 2020, only four states had not recognized it.

Although emancipation commemorations vary widely, the festival has long served as the heart of the commemorations. In many late-19th- and early 20th-century communities the festival served as their version of Emancipation Day. An organizer in Opelousas, Louisiana, where the festival includes crafts, music, and historic programming, reported, “In Opelousas we honor Juneteenth not only as an historic celebration but also as the culmination of the rich heritage and contributions of African Americans. We celebrate it as an intergenerational event, an opportunity for families—the young and the old—to bind with one another to ensure strong communities . . . promote a rich culture and pass on traditions to the next generation.”2

The general message of the holiday has been to learn from the past. Early Juneteenths celebrated freedom and community, and as the freedperson population aged, these elders increasingly became a focus of the Texas celebrations. Moreover, during the Jim Crow segregation era of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Juneteenth offered a rare opportunity for public speeches of uplift or protest with little retribution from the white population. The differing celebrations demonstrated how meanings of the past varied by time and place depending on the needs and desires of the community.

Juneteenth’s placement on the calendar in mid-June drew obvious comparisons to America’s Independence Day. Not surprisingly, Juneteenth eventually became known as Black Independence Day, echoing Frederick Douglass’s famous line, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” (see figure 1).

Figure 1. Frederick Douglass has served as a touchpoint for the need for Juneteenth, because Independence Day seemed to exclude black Americans. “Frederick Douglass,” photographer unknown, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, public domain, accessed January 17, 2019.

Juneteenth spread quickly in the 1980s and 1990s as African Americans sought a holiday, a cultural practice, to offset the history of Independence Day, which commemorated a time when most American blacks remained enslaved as white people remained free, or were slaveholders. Juneteenth, as a summer festival, traditionally paired inspiring speeches and historical remembrances with fun summer activities, like baseball, parades, and picnicking. In some Texas cities, the black community gathered resources to purchase land for the annual event. Juneteenth’s celebration two weeks before the Fourth of July has made it a convenient celebration to promote African American cultural values and history and helped it become America’s central emancipation holiday.

History of Emancipation and Early Celebrations of Emancipation

The abolition of slavery and emancipation of the enslaved in North America stretched nearly a century from Vermont’s abolition in 1777 to the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865. Abolition in the northern states from Vermont to New Jersey (1804), gradual emancipation laws, and technical judicial decisions led to “quiet emancipations.”3 While Vermont did end slavery abruptly, the very small number of enslaved Africans scattered in the state did not lead to strong communal response. In the other states, newspapers did not always announce the end of slavery, resulting in few celebrations as enslaved Africans became free gradually. This meant that emancipation commemoration was rarely tied to a particular date. But these Northern states often had colonial festivals like Pinkster, an extravagant interracial festival held during Pentecost, Negro Training Days, and Negro Election Days that transformed into freedom celebrations related to two major watersheds: the end of the slave trade in the United States in 1808 and British abolition of slavery in 1834.4

The end of the slave trade in 1808 in the United States marked the first watershed date for African Americans to acknowledge freedom. Northern black communities quickly recognized the end of the slave trade and did so publicly. In 1808 Boston, a march of black men ended with a sermon at the African Church on Belknap Street. These marches became targets of white men and boys throwing stones and insults. In Philadelphia, similar traditions emerged and sermons by ministers focused on healing divides across race. By 1820, however, these commemorations had faded as slavery still thrived in the United States.5

The end of gradual emancipation and thus, slavery, on July 4, 1827, in New York reignited the black festival spirit in New York. These festivals, well documented by Shane White, served as a moment of political expression. By becoming new and visible citizens marching the streets, formerly enslaved people asserted their pride and presence in the city. Like many emancipation days, this celebration sparked internal tensions within the black community when resolving on its meaning, as an assertion of freedom and political expression. Other black New Yorkers believed that, rather than insisting on their rights, a march of gratitude in Albany was more fitting.6

The enactment of the British Emancipation Act on August 1, 1834, brought about a sweep of celebrations throughout the Atlantic world. It was the first massive emancipation aside from the Haitian Revolution (1799–1804). Celebrants championed the British example for America. Liberians, Londoners, West Indians, Canadians, and Americans (from the United States) all recognized the date in their communities. In London, it was a major Afro-British commemoration. The London events were a moment for the abolitionists to gather and publicize the history of abolition in England.7 Across the Atlantic world, there was clear networking between the celebrants, each building on the experiences of the other.

The elation about the widespread emancipation of enslaved people expanded widely throughout the Atlantic world. The August 1st celebration of British emancipation became a counter celebration to Independence Day across thirteen states and fifty-seven municipalities in the United States.8 Organizers raised the social status of the black community, gained respect, and forwarded aspirations for respectability and uplift that would benefit wider society.9 The most vibrant celebrations often came from communities having abolitionists with strong Atlantic-world ties, like Henry Highland Garnet, who had promoted emigration to Liberia and himself moved to Jamaica. Most surprising, perhaps, was its resonance in Iowa, a state one thousand miles from the Atlantic Ocean with fewer than five hundred African Americans.10 In 1857, the politically active black community in Muscatine, Iowa, recognized British abolition over twenty years later with an all-day event that included a procession, speeches in the park, time for worship, music, food, and a ball.11

The Civil War

The Civil War resulted in the next large-scale emancipation of slaves between 1862 and 1865, although enslaved people held by Native American masters had a wide range of emancipation dates that stretched beyond the 13th Amendment.12 Communities often associated freedom with particular dates like January 1, 1863, when the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, or April 16, 1862, when Washington, DC, passed the “District of Columbia Compensated Emancipation Act.” Freedpeople in Washington, DC, began celebrating emancipation with an organized festival as early as 1866. Impromptu celebrations broke out continuously during the war as freedom spread throughout the country.13

“Watch Night” held by people awaiting news of the Emancipation Proclamation began one tradition. The signing of the Emancipation Proclamation represented a massive commitment by the government to deliver freedom to enslaved people in the South. As Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation at midnight on January 1, 1863, Frederick Douglass described the original Watch Night in Boston waiting at Tremont Hall with others anticipating the document’s signing. He wrote, “We were waiting and listening as for a bolt from the sky, which should rend the fetters of four millions of slaves.”14 This tradition of waiting for the new year to approach to hear about emancipation is still observed in many black churches and communities.

As the Union Army rolled across the south, Black communities burst open in jubilation upon hearing news of emancipation or the end of the war. In Oconee, Georgia, Ed McCree vividly described his memories of jubilee: “I runned ‘round dat place a-shoutin’ ot the top of my voice.” Felix Haywood from Texas remembered “everybody went wild.”15 On plantations, enslaved people could not always demonstrate their jubilation as openly, because they feared upsetting their former enslavers. Urban areas, however, became magnets of black celebration, because Union military occupation offered protection. In Washington, DC, African Methodist Episcopal Church Bishop Henry McNeal Turner described how “Men Squealed, women fainted . . . white and colored people shook hands, songs were sung.” In vivid detail, Charlotte Forten described how “Freedom was surely born in our land that day” in Buford, South Carolina. She detailed an “eager, wondering crowd of the freed people in their holiday attire” socializing; for Forten, even the sun gleamed with “universal gayety, and danced and sparkled more joyously than ever before.”16 Life for freedpeople in post-war Texas was oppressive, but Juneteenth remained a touchpoint back to that moment of elation.17

Because the Emancipation Proclamation did not immediately emancipate all slaves in the South, the dates of actual emancipation varied. Since the Proclamation required Union occupation, slavery rarely ended in whole states but instead reflected the occupation of a community or region. The final reading of the Emancipation Proclamation occupations happened on June 19, 1865, when General Gordon Granger landed in Galveston, Texas, two months after the surrender at Appomattox. His proclamation established freedom but also stipulated limitations:

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 personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.18

One year later, the black community in Galveston, Texas, began commemorating their emancipation day, eventually naming it a portmanteau of June 19—Juneteenth.19

Enslaved people interviewed in the Texas Works Progress Administration project that produced ex-slave oral histories recognized June 19th as Juneteenth in 1866 as well. In their descriptions of the early celebrations of the holiday, they had appropriated civil war Confederate songs, changing “The Bonnie Blue Flag” to “De Blue Bonnet Flag,” recognizing the freed people’s contributions to the war.20

Many celebrations during Reconstruction did not focus solely on emancipation but commemorated American freedom broadly and were racially diverse events. Yet, as traditional Southern elites returned to power and inaugurated racial caste systems, black Americans focused on their emancipation, having lost a place in Fourth of July and Decoration Day events in their broader community. Emancipation days became largely African American affairs and looked inwardly toward improving themselves, not society.21

Emancipation Days and Juneteenth during Jim Crow

During the Jim Crow era, black communities sought to strengthen their neighborhoods and communities. Emancipation Days like Juneteenth became significant days of commemoration for them, as many saw hope in these commemorations to assert their own histories and concepts of freedom in America. However, class differences in the interpretation of the commemoration sometimes developed into tense conversations over aspirational and moralistic respectability politics that centered on mainstream ideas and resulted in genuine points of conflict and dissent within the community.22 Thus, the post-emancipation reconstruction of black identity not only became a focus of the emancipation days throughout the country—it also became a locus of conflict.23

Emancipation days varied throughout the country, each locality developing its own traditions. But parades, remembrances, sermons, food, and festivities commonly marked these holidays. The dates that varied by location ostensibly related to the dates when enslaved Africans learned of their freedom. In 2019, for example, Mississippi celebrated on May 8; in Florida, May 22; Alabama and Georgia, May 28; Missouri, August 4; and Kentucky and Tennessee on August 8.24

The meaning of the celebration was constantly under contention. On the one hand, the backward-looking memory of slavery became a particularly significant aspect of the holiday. Juneteenth celebrations and other emancipation days made a point to recognize those who had been enslaved. In Austin, Texas, former slaves were always honored and remembered. For these organizers, Juneteenth was a way to honor ancestors and recognize the history, especially the role of Lincoln as the Great Emancipator. On the other hand, for some African Americans, slavery and connections to Africa became understood as a shameful past that should be forgotten.25 For these organizers, emancipation days became aspirational and forward looking. Each event often balanced these two seemingly contradictory goals.26

Respectability politics created other kinds of conflict as communities clashed over the focus and tone of the celebration. Was it a day of respectable reflection, to demonstrate the decency and assimilation of the black community, and to sermonize on Christianity, self-improvement, and uplift? Given that they were often observed (if not surveilled) by white members of their communities, African American organizers wanted to demonstrate their capability to be accepted. Frequently, these events emphasized Abraham Lincoln as a savior. Sometimes, this approach was born out of necessity as some, like blacks in Richmond, faced antagonistic white officials, who saw emancipation celebrations as “a jollification on the saddest of days.”27 Other African Americans thought of Juneteenth like a carnival, a day to release the stresses of an oppressive life by having a rowdy day, playing baseball, drinking alcohol, and recognizing beauty queens and princesses. As towns and cities across the country became magnets for rural visitors, this tension vexed organizers. In San Antonio, this conflict led to two parades and celebrations happening concurrently, dividing their black community.28

Through all of these internal dynamics, emancipation days remained vibrant and local during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Each community had a holiday to recognize a different moment of emancipation, which became a key moment of community building. This strength and regionalism was sustained until World War II. After the war, black communities became more focused on the civil rights freedom movement, less interested in accentuating their difference, and more interested in proving their Americanness. Indeed, more African Americans moved out of the black neighborhoods and distanced themselves from black community engagement as segregation began to dissipate and opportunities in the wider economy began to emerge.

Despite this decline, two holidays rekindled their relevance and gained national attention: Watch Night and Juneteenth. Watch Night began as the most widely recognized commemoration, but since the 1980s Juneteenth has spread more widely and gained greater national observance. Moreover, Watch Night was not a festival like many of the other emancipation commemorations, so it always has had a quieter profile, observed mostly in churches and community centers on cold winter nights. And, because it has been a tradition celebrated inside churches, it is not documented well. Knowledge of the holiday sits in the oral histories and traditions that churches continue to observe. Vennie Deas-Moore remembered Watch Night at the Sea Islands Praise House in South Carolina, 1955, as a long-standing tradition, a night of ecstatic and solemn services waiting for deliverance of freedom.29 For many black churches, this tradition of waiting for the new year to approach to hear about emancipation is still observed as Watch Night.

Juneteenth in Texas

By the dawn of the 20th century, Juneteenth had become a very mature celebration throughout Texas and in some black communities in Louisiana and Oklahoma. Nonetheless, the heart of Juneteenth before World War II was in Texas.

Different Texas localities had developed traditions and approaches to how to commemorate Juneteenth. One particular difference centered on the way the celebrations occupied space in their city or town. Some communities owned their own fairgrounds specifically for Juneteenth. Most notably, black communities in Houston and Comanche Crossing purchased land, called Emancipation Park, specifically to celebrate Juneteenth and still use it today. In 2017 several community organizations in Houston raised $33.6 million dollars to renovate the space.30 In other places, like San Antonio, African Americans used city spaces often occupied by whites; they held parades and the festival in the center of the city. San Antonio’s parade traveled down Commerce and Alamo Streets and convened in central city parks like San Pedro Springs.31

These forms of celebration developed different connections with the white population. Most Juneteenth celebrations during the Jim Crow era occurred away from the white gaze, a place for African Americans to be with their community and to revel or revere without concern for how white community members would respond. (See figure 2) However, when the celebration paraded through the center of the city, as in San Antonio, white participants were more frequent, both as observers and as participants, walking in the parade or speaking before the crowd.32 In San Antonio, a city whose large Latino population helped subdue racial tension, this act provided the black community a carnivalesque opportunity to be at the center of the city engaging and challenging Jim Crow boundaries.

Figure 2. A photograph of several Austin, Texas, Juneteenth celebrants in 1900. Mrs. Charles (Grace Murray) Stephenson, “Emancipation Day Celebration, June 19, 1900,” University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, crediting Austin History Center, Austin Public Library.

Several distinct traditions emerged from Juneteenth in Texas. The food traditions are the most pronounced. Most distinctively, participants imbibed red drinks—strawberry lemonade, Kool-Aid, or red soda. Red drinks and red desserts were common even under enslavement. The color red had important significance in traditional Asante and Yoruba cultures. More immediately, local folklore says that the red symbolizes the blood of the enslaved. Moreover, Kola nuts and hibiscus both redden drinks and were commonly used in drinks. Being a summer Texas holiday, barbeque was always on the menu. Familiar side dishes like collard greens and macaroni and cheese were also important to the Juneteenth diet. The men at Juneteenth celebrations in the early 20th century also played baseball. Local ministers offered sermons, and leaders would speak about uplifting the community. Parades were common in urban celebrations featuring local community groups, like volunteer firefighters, fraternal organizations, or women’s groups.33

Despite the efforts to uplift, the combination of drinking and revelry did lead to some occasions of violence. People were drunkenly murdered at Dallas’s Juneteenth regularly enough, and over the years it gained notoriety for violence. In small-town Muskogee, Texas, the drinking led to stabbings and fights, which newspapers referred to as a “Dallas special.”34

Before the 1950s, with their increasing ownership of automobiles, train companies took full advantage of the holiday. Some celebrants in the late 19th through the mid-20th centuries saw it as a deeply local event and thus an occasion to return “home” for Juneteenth. Train companies featured Juneteenth specials for black families to be reunited in their hometown. For others, trains would feature excursions to have a holiday away from home, to the Texas State Fair, where they had a Juneteenth celebration, or perhaps to make a pilgrimage to Galveston where the holiday began.35

The holiday has been particularly strong in smaller communities like Comanche Crossing in Limestone County, Texas. Like Houston, the black community purchased land for a park to celebrate the holiday, Booker T. Washington Park, which had to be moved when oil was discovered at its location. The community profited handsomely not merely from the oil reserves but from a strong “19th of June” organization whose constitution helped maintain its integrity for well over a century. Juneteenth became a very important day for the whole community by the late 19th century. As many as thirty thousand people, black and white, gathered and participated in a holiday that emphasized family memories before and after slavery ended. A favorite story recalled the day that local plantation owner Merritt Trammel informed the enslaved families of their freedom. As was customary elsewhere, the day also included barbeques, a speaker from the black community, car shows, and parades.36

In the 1960s and 70s, Juneteenth declined and virtually disappeared in Texas. The rise of the civil rights movement and the absence of ex-slaves, who had almost all died by the late 60s, led to a loss of celebrations in urban areas. No major urban area in Texas continued Juneteenth through most of the 70s. Disruptions in urban communities, the departure of middle-class blacks, and new efforts to integrate rather than self-segregate played into the decline. Since there were no freedpeople to honor anymore, the need for a celebration felt less urgent as well.37

In 1979 Texas state legislator and civil rights activist Al Edwards helped to resurrect the holiday by introducing Bill 1016 to make Juneteenth a state holiday.38 Al Edwards was a new legislator when he conceived of the bill. It was controversial on both ends of the political spectrum. Conservatives, like Republican legislator Doug McLeod, worried “that their constituents would not like the bill.”39 And liberal black congresspeople voiced concern that the commemoration took attention from the more significant campaign to recognize Martin Luther King Day. Democratic Congressman Craig Washington described the legislation as “diffusing the interest in a holiday for Dr. King.”40 Edwards could not find a co-sponsor of the bill until he reached across the aisle to Doug McLeod, who represented Galveston. By having support across the aisle and across racial boundaries, the bill gained enough support to pass.

Texas’s bill was the first and most substantial of any passed by state legislators in the United States. In most states, Juneteenth bills just recognize the day, commemorating it without any other commitments. In Texas, however, state employees had the option to take Juneteenth as a holiday without penalty if it fell within the work week. Indeed, Al Edwards has emerged as a legend by passing this holiday. This role is commemorated in Galveston where the Juneteenth statue depicts a freedperson holding the Emancipation Proclamation, but it uses Edwards’s visage on the enslaved person’s body (see figure 3).

Figure 3. This statue commemorating Juneteenth in Galveston, Texas, also memorializes Al Edwards, the Congressman who pressed for Juneteenth legislation. “Juneteenth Statue,” Nsaum Flikr Page, June 28, 2007. Use approved without any changes to the image through Creative Commons license.

After his success in Texas, Edwards established Juneteenth Inc., in order to expand Juneteenth commemoration outside of Texas. He was highly successful in getting national recognition for and participation in the holiday.

Spread of Juneteenth

As black Texans left their homes in the state, Juneteenth quickly spread outside of the state. First it spread regionally. In the 19th century, Juneteenth celebrations bled into Arkansas, Louisiana, and Oklahoma. It remained a regional celebration until African Americans flowed out of Texas during Second Great Migration in the 1940s. Between 1916 and 1970, millions of blacks left the South in movement known as the Great Migration, which happened in two waves. Relatively few Texans left during the First Great Migration (1916–1925) because the Texas economy thrived during an oil boom. But the Texas economy declined at the same time as World War II wartime production in California created a push-pull and drew Texans westward. Some stopped short of California in Denver, where the Air Force and manufacturing thrived between 1940 and 1970. Subsequently, Los Angeles, Denver, and San Francisco all developed consistent and popular Juneteenth celebrations in the post-war era.

San Francisco, in particular, embraced Juneteenth and celebrated it longer continuously than any other city, even more consistently than Texas’s cities that suspended their observance in the 1970s. After being introduced in 1945 by Wesley Johnson, a former Texan and nightclub owner, Juneteenth began as a special nightclub night—a night for the thousands of black Texas immigrants to come together and remember their Juneteenths “back home.” But when the city of San Francisco targeted the Western Addition, the vibrant black neighborhood that hugged Fillmore street, for redevelopment, community housing and culture was threatened including Johnson’s two nightclubs. In response, the black community took the Juneteenth revelry from the nightclub and put it on the street as a traditional and aspirational street festival. Replete with parades, music, speakers, and beauty queens, Juneteenth became an opportunity to have a cultural conversation about who belongs to the city. This conversation continued into the 21st century with varying levels of participation from the city. At its height, Juneteenth in San Francisco was a month-long event, a partnership between the city government and the black community.41

Juneteenth’s prominence nationally also became apparent in 1968 when Bayard Rustin, civil rights leader and advisor for Martin Luther King, chose to schedule the climax of the Poor People’s march on Juneteenth. The event was initially planned before King’s assassination in April. After King’s death, the campaign began in April in Memphis at the site of his assassination, the Lorraine Motel, and continued through Montgomery, Alabama, to King’s former church, then culminated in “Solidarity Day” on Juneteenth.

The Great Migration brought blacks further afield throughout the country, including to the Midwest. In the 1970s, Doris Larkins introduced Juneteenth to Wichita, Kansas, getting it recognized as a municipal celebration. It is still celebrated sporadically in the city.42 Other major Midwestern cities such as Milwaukee and Minnesota had very successful Juneteenth celebrations beginning in the 1970s.

Once Edwards had successfully achieved a state holiday in Texas in 1979, he evangelized the holiday in other states, expanding it beyond its Great Migration pathways. He and local activists first won recognition in Oklahoma and Florida by 1994. Then, in 1995, two grassroots leaders emerged, Lula Briggs Galloway and Ronald Myers, who created a national convention of Juneteenth organizers and encouraged them to campaign nationally and state-by-state to make Juneteenth an official state holiday. They distributed sample resolutions to simplify securing passage of the holiday. They also worked with leaders from both parties of the US Senate to pass a resolution recognizing “June 19th as Juneteenth Independence Day” and encouraging “its observance.”43 From that convention until Galloway died in 2008, thirty states recognized Juneteenth as a state holiday. The campaign continued under Myers’s leadership, until he died in 2018. As of 2019, forty-six states have passed legislation recognizing Juneteenth.44

Juneteenth’s proximity to the July 4th Independence Day has long catalyzed its observance. The main patriotic holiday of the summer always has held complex feelings for African Americans. In 1852, Douglass had challenged the propriety of African Americans celebrating a holiday of freedom for white people, and the question has remained relevant well into the 21st century. Juneteenth, held approximately two weeks earlier than Independence Day, has offered African Americans a day to celebrate the freedom of black people specifically. This patriotic connection has made it emerge as one of America’s major citizenship holidays. However, its meaning for racial uplift also has a temporal connection. Juneteenth also often intersects with Father’s Day, and this auspicious connection has driven messaging on the centrality of family life and been a spur to family reunions.

Ronald Myers’s organization, National Juneteenth Observation Foundation, popularized Juneteenth throughout the United States, so that it even gained popularity among American political conservatives. The movement emphasized reconciliation, so their campaigns for state recognition often canvassed conservative Republican leaders, such as Texas Senators Kay Bailey Hutchinson and John Cornyn and vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin. The holiday presented as a point of reconciliation and American exceptionalism was favorably received, especially in Republican and conservative politics during the second Obama administration, when conservatives assessed that they had lost the election because they had little support among ethnic and racial minorities.45 Thus the state-by-state movement had some advocacy from conservative politicians. In 2012, the Tea Party even titled their national convention in Atlanta “Juneteenth Redux:”—the motto focused on unifying across racial divisions—“Liberty Is Color-Blind,” and the event itself featured Ronald Myers and several other conservative black activists and artists. Despite the Republican turn toward racially divisive policies and rhetoric in the Trump administration, the Republican National Committee and President Donald Trump still released a commemorative statement in honor of Juneteenth in 2019.46

In 2020 Juneteenth became even more well-known when the Trump presidential campaign, lacking any apparent knowledge about Juneteenth, not only scheduled its first post-pandemic re-election rally for June 19th, a Friday, but scheduled it for Tulsa, Oklahoma, which was a year away from commemorating the 100th anniversary of the worst anti-black racial massacre in American history that consumed much of Tulsa’s black community of Greenwood in May and June of 1921.47 Although the campaign postponed the rally to June 20, the furor over the scheduling gaffe, combined with the national crises of the COVID-19 pandemic and the protests in response to the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25, drew enormous attention to the history and need for Juneteenth, with a flurry of corporations and state and local governments offering employees a day off for the commemoration and celebration.48

Juneteenth and Popular Culture

As Juneteenth spread throughout the United States as a festival after 1979, it emerged as an inspiration for popular culture as well.49 Indeed, a significant amount of cultural output has come out of the festivals directly. It has also been a cultural touchpoint for naming books, songs, and bands. More recently, the celebration has gained significant national attention, as a focus of television episodes on two of the premier African American TV shows in 2016 and 2017, Black-ish and Atlanta.

If both shows had an episode entitled “Juneteenth,” their perspectives on Juneteenth, however, contrasted with each other. Atlanta aired on FX and focused on Earn, played by Donald Glover, a young man who dropped out of Princeton to become the producer of Little Boi, an Atlanta rap artist. The episode “Juneteenth,” which aired on October 25, 2016, is set at a Juneteenth celebration at the luxurious house of his black aunt and white uncle. In it, Earn dons a suit and attends the party hoping to continue to get financial support from his relatives. In order to fit in, he pretends to be ambitious and respectable, hiding his new career and faking a marriage to his intermittent girlfriend. The episode is filled with awkward moments including a point where his white uncle, who acts overly familiar, questions Earn’s commitment to blackness, because he has not been to “the motherland.” Eventually the situation at the party is so fraught Earn has to flee being trapped at the “freedom party.”

Black-ish premiered their 2017 season with “Juneteenth” on October 4, 2017. Black-ish is an ABC prime-time situation comedy that centers on an upper-middle-class black family. In “Juneteenth,” the father, Dre, is frustrated by the history of Christopher Columbus his youngest children are learning at school. He hopes to instill a different history to his children. Juneteenth is a way to do that. The show uses a Broadway-style music number, an animated video akin to Schoolhouse-Rock, and family and workplace discussions to educate about Juneteenth and to strategize how to best center and celebrate the experiences of black people in American history.

Perhaps the most prestigious association is that from the author of the American classic, Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison. Ellison’s second, but unfinished, novel was published in 1999 and edited and entitled Juneteenth by John F. Callahan, Ellison’s literary executor. Ellison had begun work on Juneteenth soon after completing Invisible Man. Whereas he worked on it between the 1950s and the 1980s, and wrote around two thousand pages, Ellison never felt like he could complete the book. The condensed, edited book looks at the past of two characters, Reverend Alonzo Hickman, a black Baptist preacher, and Adam Sunraider, a racist Senator who had been shot. Through reminiscences, it is discovered that Sunraider was not only raised by Hickman but had actually been a child named Bliss, who was of an undetermined race. The book reflects on relationships, both love and blood, reconciliation, religion, and corruption in politics and history. The idea of Juneteenth emerges when Ellison focuses on the characters’ “Juneteenth Rambles.” In this book, Juneteenth represents both history and a communal experience. “There’s been a heap of Juneteenths before this one,” Reverend Hickman says to Bliss, “and there’ll be a heap more before we’re truly free!”50

Such literary consideration is hardly limited to Ellison’s work. Another indicator of Juneteenth’s meaning within the national conversation is its growth as an important topic for children’s literature. Several dozen children’s books on Juneteenth have been published, both fiction and non-fiction. These books provide teachers insight into black culture and history in a way that is easily framed toward a progressive view of history.

The Juneteenth festivals created and distributed popular culture themselves. The events often feature pop-art posters advertising the events. Several Juneteenths have featured stage plays written to embody the spirit or history of Juneteenth. As a moment to feature black culture, some locations feature film festivals or premieres of films, particularly of independent films. San Francisco has regularly had film festivals and promised an appearance from Billy Dee Williams in the early 2000s. The Germantown neighborhood of Philadelphia, a neighborhood transformed by the Second Great Migration, usually features an independent film, and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts also recognized Juneteenth with a film.

Music is particularly integral to contemporary celebrations. Jazz festivals and other forms of musical performance have often been a key part of Juneteenth celebrations. Ronald Myers, the founder of the National Juneteenth Observation Association, was a jazz artist and encouraged jazz as a core part of the celebrations. Germantown, Pennsylvania, featured a jazz festival for about a decade in the 2000s. For a few years in the 1980s, Houston organized a large jazz festival as a part of their Juneteenth festivities. All music was encouraged, both local and national artists. Houston’s 1999 Juneteenth featured a “Rap Explosion.” In recent years, Denver attracted different national artists, including rapper Jadakiss in 2018 and R&B artist Ashanti in 2019. However, almost every Juneteenth offers local artists, singing groups, spoken-word poets, dance troupes, and choirs a stage to perform on.

The history of Juneteenth and other emancipation days charts the African American struggle to define their own meaning in America. While the holiday mostly served African-descended communities seeking to assert and display meaningful messages, remembering emancipation has been important for the whole nation. The recognition of the abolition of slavery was a moment of clear change, a choice toward living in the ideals of freedom. Because freedom can be so amorphous and holds so much rhetorical weight in American as well as British societies, it has been deployed to assert both a specific and countercultural African point of view and a respectable, moralistic aspiration toward acceptance in mainstream America. The pliability of history to so many meanings has resulted in Juneteenth’s success, evolving and molding to fit the needs of the community. For this reason celebrations like Juneteenth will continue to resonate in American culture well past the foreseeable future.

Scholarship on Juneteenth and Emancipation Celebrations

The existing scholarship on Juneteenth and emancipation days draws from three strains of scholarship: the history of slavery and African American history, cultural history, and historical memory. Scholarship on the history of slavery was transformed in the 1960s as social historians sought to uncover the history of all people in the United States. While innovative readings of plantation-owner documents and Works Project Administration oral history sources was able to tease out completely new perspectives on slavery, these sources were limited by the circumstances under which they were created. Cultural history was also being transformed at the same time, offering fresh and interdisciplinary methodologies to understand aspects of ordinary lives that traditional textual sources rarely disclosed, offering new ways to understand the history of the less powerful. Significantly, during the 1980s scholars started to focus on festivals as an important cultural product to understand communities more deeply. As historical scholars, influenced by Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault, began to deconstruct the assumptions of history, the study of historical memory became a significant avenue for intellectual inquiry. Scholars of historical memory unpack the way that people remember the past and examine how those memories constitute “history” for a community. As historical festivals, emancipation days are expressions of a community’s memory of the past.

Methodologies of cultural history drew from new anthropological approaches that developed in the 1970s. Scholars like Clifford Geertz transformed anthropology and cultural history.51 By taking a symbolic approach to culture, scholars could understand communication, knowledge, and attitudes through thick description, an examination of the full context, so that the reader, who has not lived in the same context as the subject, can understand their subject fully. For historians, festivals offered an opportunity to gain insight into the minds of ordinary people through thick description. Other scholars, like Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger, began investigating memory and festivals in the 1970s, and American scholars followed suit in the late 1980s.52

William Wiggins was the first scholar to examine African American emancipation holidays and, as a folklorist, provided important foundations to this scholarship. The first African American male to hold a doctorate in folklore, Wiggins had an anthropological background and used ethnographic and archival research to describe and situate emancipation holidays within African American culture. As his work was largely to describe deeply rather than analyze, this approach gave scholars a strong foundation from which to understand emancipation celebrations and plenty of space to analyze the festivals more deeply. As important as his work is, he did not write the first book on Juneteenth.53 Local historian Doris Hollis Pemberton wrote a local history of African Americans in Limestone County, Texas, where Juneteenth was a central annual celebration. Similarly, it provided details and documentation of Juneteenth as a seminal community holiday.

Commemoration and memory have been investigated deeply by scholars since the 1990s, and these studies often included discussion of emancipation commemoration. David Thelen and a special issue of the Journal of American History alerted American historians to the value of historical memory as a place of study. The scholars in that issue showed how memory is “constructed, not reproduced” and develops as a part of the subject’s context.54 Because of this dynamic, memory illuminated intention and context giving the reader depth in understanding new topics. Memory studies began to be applied to many fields, including those that help reveal broad cultural subjects like race and war.55 To understand emancipation days, edited collections like Genevieve Fabre and Robert O’Meally’s examination of African American memory offered space for more sophisticated examinations after Wiggins’s work. Fabre’s critical perspective of commemorations as a “site of memory,” a place to understand the historical consciousness of African Americans and thus performances of memory, offers communities a place to visualize and temporarily realize their future. In Fitzhugh Brundage’s edited volume, Where These Memories Grow, Kathleen Clark argued that emancipation days were vibrant and contested spaces of developing identities.56 The most significant addition to Americanist historiography on memory was David Blight’s Race and Reunion, in which Blight examines the ways that the segregated and competing historical memories of the Civil War shaped the next fifty years of southern history.57 Within the various memories of the war, among African Americans he points to emancipationist memories as an important strain in their thought. However, Blight covers very little on the emancipation holidays themselves.

In the 2000s, emancipation holidays became a specific focus because they reach to the heart of the intersection of memory, African American history, and cultural history. Following the essays in Fabre and O’Meally and Brundage, book-length studies soon followed. Mitch Kachun examined what he argued was the rise and fall of emancipation festivals.58 In 2005, Kathleen Clark expanded upon her chapter in Brundage’s edited volume on emancipation holidays to put them in the context of African American political culture in the Reconstruction and Jim Crow eras. More recently, Jeffrey Kerr-Ritchie put emancipation days in a Black Atlantic context. In 2007’s Rites of August First: Emancipation Day in the Black Atlantic World, he examines the commemoration of August 1, 1834, the emancipation of slaves in the British Empire, to show that cultural politics of emancipation stretched across broad swaths of time and space.59 Kerr-Ritchie argues that these Rites became the foundation for global alliances and advocacy for civil rights. Leslie Schwalm had already identified the scope of this holiday in her 2003 article, “Emancipation Day Celebrations: The Commemoration of Slavery and Freedom in Iowa.”60 As Schwalm demonstrates, in the 1850s, black people in Iowa thousands of miles from Britain and twenty years after emancipation used the holiday as a moment of political culture, asserting their civil rights in Iowa.

Since William Wiggins’s introduction of emancipation days to scholars, no one has yet engaged in a scholarly book-length study. However, several book chapters on emancipation days place Juneteenth in a larger history of historical memory and celebration. In addition, a small handful of academic articles have explored Juneteenth from various perspectives. Among peer-reviewed studies, several are short, lightly researched essays on the application of Juneteenth. Shennette Garrett-Scott establishes recommendations on how to teach Juneteenth, and Judson Jeffries ties the need for reparations in Texas to the history of Juneteenth. Courtney Adkins, a folklorist, studied Juneteenth in Louisiana in the late 20th century. Historian Judith Sobre looked at Juneteenth in context of parade culture in San Antonio, Texas, and argued that Juneteenth was a civic parade where black San Antonians demonstrated their belonging to the city.61 In 2007, Elizabeth Hayes Turner examined the history of Juneteenth in Texas as an effort by African Americans to assert a subversive interpretation of history. In 2008, Janice Hume and Noah Arceneaux contributed to scholarship of collective memory when they examined how press coverage reflected pliable historical memory of Juneteenth. And, in 2019, Emily Blanck delved deeply into the history of San Francisco’s Juneteenth as a response to urban renewal.

Primary Sources

Since Juneteenth and emancipation days were intrinsically local celebrations, the vast majority of research on these days depends on local historical resources. There are no archives of or pertaining to Juneteenth. Instead, across the United States, university, private, public, and state archives have a small handful of folders or vertical files about their local Juneteenth festivals. Newspapers serve as the most voluminous resource. Black newspapers, which are often collected in databases, can be especially useful, but city newspapers provide an interface to get details on the celebration as well as the perception of the celebration. For Juneteenth celebrations in Texas, Houston’s Metropolitan Research Center has very strong vertical files. In addition, archives throughout the country preserved collections of Juneteenth paraphernalia. For instance, University of California, Berkeley’s archive holds dozens of photos, oral histories, and documents from local institutions that related the history of Juneteenth in the Bay Area.

As a contemporary festival, websites and social media resources provide a significant window into the festivals, their operations, and particular perspectives on historical memory. Similarly, if interested in the popular culture of Juneteenth, the Internet offers researchers a sense of how Juneteenth has been deployed by non-festival entities. Podcast hosts, blog writers, and social media posts use Juneteenth as an opportunity to make commentary on race, history, or politics.

In order to understand Juneteenth, it is important to visit the websites of Juneteenth advocates. Juneteenth.com and nationaljuneteenth.com are nationally directed. However, since the death of Myers in 2018, nationaljuneteenth.com has remained stagnant. It did have a significant amount of information about the campaign to recognize the holiday politically. The webmasters behind Juneteenth.com also seem to have lost energy in updating their site since the centennial of Juneteenth in 2015.

Additionally, Lula Briggs Galloway published a useful book, Ring the Bell of Freedom, that mostly serves as a set of documents about Juneteenth and its advocacy, in addition to documents regarding the history of Juneteenth, both for her organization and Texas’s history. Most significantly, it includes the form letter that grassroots activists used to get it recognized as a state holiday.

Further Reading

  • Adkins, Courtney. “Juneteenth in Louisiana: ‘If I Found Out It Was a Holiday, I’d Try to Celebrate It.’” Southern Folklore 56, no. 3 (1999): 195–208.
  • Blanck, Emily. “Galveston on San Francisco Bay: Juneteenth in the Fillmore District, 1945–2016.” The Western Historical Quarterly 50, no. 2 (2019): 85–112.
  • Blight, David. Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2001.
  • Brundage, Fitzhugh, ed. Where These Memories Grow: History, Memory, and Southern Identity. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000.
  • Clark, Kathleen. Defining Moments African American Commemoration and Political Culture in the South, 1863–1913. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005.
  • Fabre, Genevieve. “African-American Commemorative Celebrations in the Nineteenth Century.” In History and Memory in African-American Culture. Edited by Genevieve Fabre and Robert O’Meally, 75. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.
  • Hume, Janice, and Noah Arceneaux. “Public Memory, Cultural Legacy, and Press Coverage of the Juneteenth Revival.” Journalism History 34, no. 3 (2008): 155–162.
  • Kachun, Mitch. Festivals of Freedom: Memory and Meaning in African American Emancipation Celebrations, 1808–1915. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2003.
  • Kerr-Ritchie, Jeffrey R. Rites of August First: Emancipation Day in the Black Atlantic World. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2007.
  • Litwack, Leon. Been in the Storm so Long: The Aftermath of Slavery. New York: Alfred P. Knopf, 1979.
  • Sobre, Judith Berg. San Antonio on Parade: Six Historic Festivals. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2003.
  • Thelen, David. “Memory and American History.” The Journal of American History 75, no. 4 (March 1989): 1117–1129.
  • Turner, Elizabeth Hayes. “Juneteenth: Emancipation and Memory.” In Lone Star Pasts: Memory and History in Texas. Edited by Greg Cantrell and Elizabeth Hayes Turner, 152. College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2004.
  • Wiggins, William. Oh Freedom! Afro American Emancipation Celebrations. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1991.

Notes