What would you call May 8th if you wanted to make it a holiday? Mayth? Would September 1st be Septemberst?
No such holidays exist. But there is a similar one — in June, on the 19th. It’s a day of great significance to all Americans and African Americans in particular.
It’s called “Juneteenth,” and a lot Americans, blacks included, have never heard of it.
June 19th is sometimes called “Emancipation Day” or “African-American Independence Day.” Here’s how it came about:
In 1863, two years into the U.S. Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, declaring slaves in the rebellious southern Confederacy free.
Lincoln’s proclamation was mostly a symbolic gesture, designed to unsettle the enemy and instill hope in the oppressed. It had little practical effect, since the Union was not yet in a position to enforce it. Slavery had to be wrenched from wealthy white southerners at the point of a bayonet. Months after the rebel army surrendered in April 1865, defiant slaveowners continued to hold human chattel in Texas, the most remote of the Confederate states.
In June of that year Union general Gordon Granger landed at Galveston, the island city that was then the most prosperous place in Texas. Much of the populace there — slaves in particular — had no idea that the U.S. Civil War had ended 2½ months earlier or that the era of slavery was over.
There was much speculation as to why Granger took his sweet time getting to Texas. Galveston Island was, admittedly, a “haul” from New Orleans, the nearest big southern city in Union hands. But conspiracy theorists speculate that Granger and his men wanted to give plantation owners time to harvest one last cotton crop before halting their inhumane enterprises.
Granger’s order freeing America’s last known slaves and read in Galveston’s town square on June 19th, 1865, took note of fears that freed slaves who had relied upon their overseers for sustenance would be set loose on towns and military camps:
“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.”
Up in Washington, the U.S. Congress was of a mind to punish the defeated South and codify the rights of freed slaves. It quickly passed the 14th Amendment to the national constitution, granting slaves — who had been little more than property under the law — full citizenship and all the benefits that came with it.
When most southern states refused to ratify the amendment, Congress declared martial law, dividing the region into five military districts and dispatching troops to enforce what was called the “reconstruction” of the South.
In 1870, five years after the war’s end during the term of President Ulysses S. Grant — the former supreme commander of the Union Army that had swept to victory in the South — Congress passed the 15th Amendment, guaranteeing all citizens full voting rights as well.
But Reconstruction could not, and did not, last. Although blacks temporarily rose to power in many of the places where they had recently been enslaved, whites scorned them at every turn and maneuvered for a quick return to power.
President Grant’s successor, Rutherford B. Hayes, gained office in 1877 after an election that he actually lost. U.S. presidents are chosen, not in the popular vote, but by a few electors selected by the winning political party in each state. Deals can be made, and Hayes made one. He got the presidency after agreeing to pull federal troops from the South.
The soldiers’ departure brought a quick end to any illusions that blacks would share power. Reigns of terror and repressive state laws ushered in almost a century of systematic racial segregation.
Nevertheless, blacks throughout the South came together whenever they could on June 19th for home-cooked meals, prayer, fervent singing, Juneteenth stories, and re-enactments of General Granger’s proclamation.
According to the Juneteenth.com Web site, which describes efforts by American expatriates to spread the celebration around the globe, “Dress was an important element in early Juneteenth customs and is often still taken seriously. . . . During slavery there were laws on the books in many areas that prohibited or limited the dressing of the enslaved. During the initial days of the [Juneteenth] emancipation celebrations, there are accounts of former slaves tossing their ragged garments into the creeks and rivers to adorn clothing taken from the plantations belonging to their former ‘masters.’”
At Juneteenth’s height in 1930, 75 years after General Granger’s proclamation, an estimated 200,000 people attended an Emancipation Day celebration at the Texas State Fair in Dallas. But slowly — especially following the passage of civil-rights legislation in the 1960s — the informal holiday lost its luster as blacks began to feel more a part of the American mainstream. They switched to much more lavish American Independence Day festivities on July fourth.
Juneteenth slid nearly out of sight and mind, and even history textbooks failed to give June 19th any special meaning. This disappointed acclaimed concert pianist and composer Robert Pritchard of the historically black Lincoln University in Philadelphia. He had led the push to expand “Negro History Week,” begun in the 1920s, into a full Black History Month.
“The rights and freedoms of the Declaration of Independence referred to Euro-Americans only, because my ancestors were slaves,” Pritchard said. “But by 19 June, 1865, every word — every one of the high principles —really became apropos to Americans of all colors, creeds, cultures, and countries of origin.”
Texas blacks — and many whites and Latinos, too — however, did not lose sight of Juneteenth. In 1980, the state enacted a bill to create an official June 19th state holiday — the first in the nation — devoted to African-American culture. (There was some justice and balance in this as Texas also marks Confederate Heroes’ Day on January 19th. Not too many Confederate heroes were African Americans.)
State Representative Al Edwards of Houston sponsored the legislation that set aside Juneteenth as something more than a ceremonial holiday like Mother’s Day or Valentine’s Day. All state employees — save for a skeleton crew of people to keep the offices open — get the day off.
On many a Juneteenth, Edwards told me, his father and other parents on his block slow-cooked beef barbecue in pits dug in the earth. There were baseball games and church services. People drank Polly’s soda pop, a sweet red drink with a lemonade base.
In 2005, a small Juneteenth statue depicting a black man reading the Emancipation Proclamation was erected outside Galveston’s Ashton Villa house museum, and there are plans to mount a larger version on the capitol grounds in Austin.
Not everyone is thrilled, however, that the person depicted in the sculpture is none other than Al Edwards.
Over time, about half of the other 49 U.S. states declared their own Juneteenth holidays. And for years, the Rev. Ronald V. Myers, Sr., a Mississippi ordained minister and family-health physician, has led a campaign, thus far unsuccessfully, to make Juneteenth a national holiday.
I remember coming across a plaque outside a building in Baltimore, Maryland. “Juneteenth National Museum,” it read. Inside, I found a cluttered basement office with no exhibits, save for a painting or two. It was a virtual museum only, with an active Internet Web site.
When I looked online a few days ago, the site was gone. But on another Web site listing Juneteenth events across the country, the national museum got a mention, along with a notation that it offered underground-railroad tours. (The underground railroad was not a rail line but a network of safe houses, kept by abolitionists and others, for escaped slaves who were fleeing north.)
I reconnected with the Juneteenth National Museum’s director, community activist Morning Sunday Hettleman, who for years has organized Baltimore’s June 19th celebrations. She told me the museum’s funding has been a casualty of Maryland’s severe budget shortfall.
But this year’s celebration will go on as scheduled. It will take place at Baltimore’s Fort McHenry, famous as the site where Washington lawyer Francis Scott Key wrote the words to “The Star-Spangled Banner” — our eventual national anthem. During the festivities, historic re-enactors will tell stories, not of “bombs bursting in air” as British warships besieged the fort during the War of 1812, but of the black carpenters and other artisans who built many of the fortifications there and at Fort Sumter, South Carolina, where the Civil War would ignite 53 years later. They will mention, too, that the servant who alerted Key that “the star-spangled banner still waves” after the British bombardment was a black man.
Morning Hettleman told me she and others needed to keep Juneteenth alive because northern blacks, in particular, had lost touch with what it stands for.
“As a matter of fact,” she said, “when I first went to some of the leaders in the African-American community to ask them about helping, they said there had been more freedmen than slaves in Maryland, so celebrating Juneteenth was unnecessary. I went ahead and prepared. I had dancers. A friend of mine had made all this food, and when only 10 people showed up, I was in shock. So I realized there had to be a massive education process.”
These days across the South, especially, many more than 10 people show up for the picnics, presentations, and the singing of lyrics such as “I’m on my way to Freedom Land” from old Negro spirituals.
Ten years ago, I met Sharon Pinchback, a U.S. Postal Service worker and mother of three, who had been crowned “Ms. Juneteenth” at the previous year’s event. She had a fascinating perspective on the Juneteenth commemoration:
“Most African Americans think of their past as slavery, starting from slavery,” she told me. “Not starting from Africa, but starting from slavery. And they really don’t want to relate to that any more. So when you bring something positive to the table, they are really ready to absorb it. They are proud of it, but they just didn’t know about it.”
There aren’t Memorial Day-style parades or monster Independence Day-type fireworks at any Juneteenth celebrations that I know of. They are modest, prideful affairs. Americans whose ancestors lived in chains on our soil want to remind others that the passage from slavery into freedom is not irrelevant old news or a trifle. Each June 19th, Juneteenth’s supporters mark freedom’s blessings by gathering where they wish, singing what they wish, reciting the Emancipation Proclamation if they wish, and perhaps, if they wish, lifting a can of Polly’s Pop as well.
Abolitionist. A reformer who, through writings and speeches, works to end slavery.
Chattel. Personal, movable property, including furniture and jewelry, as opposed to “real” property such as land. At times, humans have been chattel as well.