Even before this year’s protests demanding black lives, and by extension black history, be taken seriously, Juneteenth — the oldest American holiday to commemorate the end of slavery — was creeping into the zeitgeist. The Juneteenth reboot was a slow one, but there has been a real uptick in parades and festivals in joyful observance.
In a 2017 Black-ish episode, Anthony Anderson’s character, Dre, demands his family celebrate the way-too undervalued holiday. And that reverberated through the black community, and beyond. Last year, Gov. Tom Wolf declared Juneteenth a state holiday. And this year, amid the racially charged atmosphere, Mayor Jim Kenney made June 19 an official city holiday, too, closing all city offices and facilities.
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Many of us, however, regardless of our race, still don’t know the significance of Juneteenth. Here is a primer, and why we should all celebrate:
Juneteenth was first celebrated by newly emancipated black Texans 155 years ago.
Sure, President Abraham Lincoln freed black people in the South from bondage 157 years ago, on Jan. 1, 1863, when he signed the Emancipation Proclamation. But enslaved Americans in Texas didn’t learn they were free until more than two years later after General Robert E. Lee surrendered and the union troops were finally strong enough to enforce the order that slavery in Texas had come to an end.
Union soldier Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger arrived in Texas with his regiment, as the story goes, on June 13, but it took him six days to get to Galveston where the last of the enslaved were in bondage. When he told them they were free, parties erupted in the streets. (The 13th Amendment abolishing slavery across the U.S. didn’t come into effect until almost six months later in December 1865, almost three years after Lincoln’s proclamation.)
Since then, black Americans have marked June 19th — or Juneteenth — with picnics, parades, and fireworks displays. The celebration is also called Freedom Day, Jubilee Day, or Emancipation Day.
Juneteenth was celebrated in black households — especially in the South — through the turn of the 20th century. But the date was left out of the history books. Children were taught that Lincoln freed the slaves in 1863. Period. To white America, Granger’s arrival in Texas ending slavery for those who had been enslaved an additional 2½ years wasn’t a big deal. But it was to black people.
“America’s greatness was predicated on black supplication,” said Kali Nicole Gross, the Martin Luther King Scholar of Black History at Rutgers University and coauthor of A Black Women’s History of the United States. “The reality is the African American experience is not widely taught in the U.S. public school system [and that] is unconscionable, because it’s at the heart of the very shaping of this nation. White supremacists have been very effective in silencing the voices that teach an expansive, truthful and realistic history of this nation.”
And so, the tradition of black families celebrating Juneteenth got a little lost in the 20th century. From 1920 to 1970, six million black people moved from the South to northern states to escape Jim Crow and make a better life for their families in what is known as the Great Black Migration. Many worked in factories and were not given time off to celebrate Juneteenth. After all, the Fourth of July was the day set aside for American independence.
Just as the traditions of Juneteenth were getting lost, some groups started to take them back, and give the holiday a new, political significance.
Juneteenth saw a resurgence during civil rights protests in the 1950s and 1960s when student demonstrators in Atlanta wore Juneteenth freedom buttons, to call on the support of their ancestors.
In 1968, Southern Christian Leadership Conference Leader the Rev. Ralph Abernathy spoke at the Poor Peoples Campaign in Washington and urged poor people of all races to demand jobs, unemployment, a fair minimum wage, and education to improve self-image and self-esteem of poor people. The by-product: Young black people went home to cities, including Milwaukee and Minneapolis, and kicked off Juneteenth celebrations to pay homage to their history. (Sound familiar?) And Juneteenth continued to slowly grow across the country during the black power movement of the 1970s.
In Philly, Ronald Brown of Mount Airy began holding annual Juneteenth events in 1997, starting with a three-day event in Germantown that included parades, educational events, and picnics, as well as tours of important black history sites, including stops on the Underground Railroad.
Philly’s Juneteenth celebrations grew from there. Within a decade, Philly started hosting an annual parade sponsored by legendary Philadelphia singer Kenny Gamble. In recent years, there have been competing events.
“When I started this, 99% of people didn’t know what Juneteenth was,” Brown said. “But now, I’m excited people want to know about their history. During slavery people lost their history. What we want to do to is return them back to their consciousness and learn the history that was lost to them.”
The truth is, Juneteenth always mattered. The problem was it wasn’t taught in school. And those who kept the holiday alive — even if it was just by saying an extra prayer at Sunday dinner — have left us. That means the most important historical event in black history is still fighting for recognition.
And a new cry for that recognition rose a week ago when President Trump announced his plan to resume holding political rallies in Tulsa, Okla. — the site of the deadliest race riot in American history — on Juneteenth. (After serious backlash, Trump postponed the rally to Saturday.)
“I don’t know if Trump himself personally knew the significance,” Gross said. “But he has a cadre of hard-core white nationalists who absolutely did know and this is a way to signal to that element … And even though the date was changed, the signal was made.”
This year’s Juneteenth celebration takes on even more importance as Americans — of all races, creeds, and colors — are seeing how much black American lives, and history, have been ignored.
The holiday also comes as America starts to look at real change in how it treats black Americans. Cities are rethinking the role of police departments. Statues of leaders who were brutal to black people — including former Mayor Frank Rizzo — are being removed. Scores of institutions and leaders, from Quaker Oats regarding its Aunt Jemima brand, to Anna Wintour at Vogue, are apologizing for how they have treated black people, both symbolically and in practice.
“These things are a real signal that [major institutions] are done with racial discrimination in its most blatant forms,” Gross said. “But we need to make clear these kinds of symbolic gestures are exactly that: symbolic gestures. Now, we need action.”