19 June 2021
Yesterday marked the first observance of Juneteenth as a national holiday in the US, following President Joe Biden signing the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act into law earlier this week. Today, Saturday 19 June, is actually Juneteenth, and marks the 156th anniversary of the day when enslaved people in Texas learned of their freedom. Whilst the Emancipation Proclamation delivered by President Abraham Lincoln in 1862 had officially outlawed slavery in all the rebel states, enforcement generally relied on the arrival of Union troops. Texas was the most remote of the slave states and it wasn’t until 19 June 1865 that General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, and issued General Order Number 3 at locations around the city, informing Texans that all slaves were now free.
Juneteenth was marked by African American residents of Galveston in 1866 and annual celebrations gradually spread across Texas, then the south and eventually to other parts of the country, often thanks to Texans migrating. Celebrations are typically locally organised. In the early years they combined religious, civil and community elements.
In 1895 the community of Parsons, Kansas, a railroad town which would have had many black residents with connections to Texas, held its first community Juneteenth celebration. The ‘Local and Personal News’ column of the Parsons Weekly Blade, an African-American newspaper, reported that:
Last Wednesday the citizens of this city and vicinity, native Texans, assembled in the fair grounds to commemorate the thirtieth anniversary of the liberation of the bonded Afro-American of Texas. After indulging in various pleasures, they were called to the sumptuous repasts that were spread by our energetic ladies […]. At 3:30 the people were called together in the amphitheater to hear the speakers of the day.1
There were songs, including ‘Hold the Fort’, a gospel hymn inspired by a Union victory in 1864, which melds martial and Christian imagery, and ‘John Brown’s Body’, a popular song commemorating the executed abolitionist John Brown and his attack on Harper’s Ferry in 1859. Both songs had been popular with the Union army during the Civil War. (They still held currency in 1895 and would continue to have a place in the gospel and folk traditions, as well as within protest and workers movements in the 20th century: you can find Pete Seeger, for example, performing both songs on YouTube if you’d like to hear them.)
Following the music and speeches by religious leaders, ‘an animated game of base ball was witnessed; when the happy throng repaired to their homes expressing themselves as highly pleased with their first Juneteenth celebration.’
Well into the 20th century, Juneteenth celebrations continued to have a regional flavour and were generally still associated with Texas. In 1941 The Negro Star, a black newspaper from Wichita, Kansas, ran an Associated Negro Press story, ‘Texas Preparing for “Juneteenth” Celebration’. Reporting from Houston, Texas, the item noted that, ‘This city, together with the rest of Tan Texas is busily preparing for the annual “Juneteenth” celebration, most colorful and all inclusive holiday celebrated by Negroes in the Lone Star state. Held on June 19th, civic, social and fraternal organizations join hands in celebrating their day of deliverance from slavery.’2 The article went on to explain that ‘most people use [the day] as a means of being excused from work. Few if any of them can be found on their jobs on that day. White employers have found it expedient to overlook their colored employees’ absence on Juneteenth.’ The main events were to be held in Emancipation Park, an area of the city originally solely used to mark Juneteenth but later donated to the city, and which, from 1922 to 1940 was the only park for African-Americans during segregation.3 There was to be ‘a traditional program of speaking and singing of spirituals […], and guests were to include ‘World war vets, Spanish-American war vets, and the few remaining ex-slaves.’ The inclusion of the formerly enslaved in an event taking place during the Second World War is a stark reminder, even now, of how near the experience of slavery is in human terms.
The popularity of Juneteenth celebrations dipped during the Civil Rights era, when campaigning energies were put towards integrationist efforts and making space for black Americans within existing social, political and cultural structures. However, with the rise of Black Power and renewed interest in African American history and culture in the late 1960s and 1970s, Juneteenth saw a resurgence across the US. This revival saw large celebrations take place in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and Milwaukee, Wisconsin during the 1970s.
In 1974 the Milwaukee Star, an African American newspaper, reviewed the inner city Juneteenth celebrations of the previous week, giving a sense of the vibrancy of the event with people ‘dancing, laughing and singing’ in a heavily-illustrated article.4 Black arts and culture had taken a larger role in the celebrations by this point: the article noted ‘on one side street a poet stands speaking to a small crowd on Black love, while next to him a local DJ tries hard to drown him out with a very loud James Brown record.’ The journalist, Michael Holt, also noted the political tensions encapsulated by the day, describing a pull between those who felt the anniversary should be a solemn occasion and those ‘who look at the festivities as a vehicle to relieve the inner frustrations, if only for a day.’ Holt quoted a University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee professor who had told his class the previous year that the ‘so-called Juneteenth Day celebration “was nothing but a modern day version of the practice in slavery days of masters giving slaves the day off to get drunk and release tensions upon themselves.” But despite the explanation by the professor, many of his students could be seen roaming the streets on the so-call Black Fourth of July celebration.’
The connection to the Fourth of July Independence Day celebrations has often prompted reflection on the broader significance of Juneteenth. A thoughtful editorial by Paula Harris-White in the Afro-Hawaii News in July 1991 noted that the Fourth of July holiday ‘often serves as a reminder of the position that people of color have held in America. They have been slaves, coolie workers, “savages”, foreigners, in spite of the fact that this was their place of birth. For many Americans, actual independence came long after July 4, 1776. Sometimes people who thought they were free, could have that freedom arbitrarily revoked, even in the 20th century, because their name was Wantanabe or Yamada.’5 Harris-White went on to explain the origins of Juneteenth to her readers and observed, ‘I share this information with all of you because sometimes we need to put our history in perspective. While I do acknowledge those leaders who chose to liberate the thirteen colonies from England, as a woman of color, I can quite never forget that their act of declaring freedom did not include people like me.’
As Kevin Young, Andrew W. Mellon director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, noted in the New York Times on 18 June 2021:
What Juneteenth and other Emancipation days commemorate is both the promise of freedom and its delay. For June 19, 1865, doesn’t mark the day enslaved African Americans were set free in the United States but the day the news of Emancipation reached them in Texas, two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation. It is a holiday ringed, like a good brisket, though not in smoke but irony. Out of such ironies Black people have made the blues, made lemonade, made good. The lesson of Juneteenth is both of celebration and expectation, of freedom deferred but still sought and of the freedoms to come.6
For those interested in researching African American history at the British Library, the African American Newspapers 1827-1998 digital resource from Readex is an excellent starting point, and is available for registered readers to access remotely. You can find out about the range of remote access e-resources here, including the US Congressional Serial Set, American Broadsides and Ephemera, and Early American Newspapers.
-- Cara Rodway, Eccles Centre
1. ‘Local and Personal News,’ Parsons Weekly Blade (Parsons, Kansas), June 22, 1895 (p.4)
2. ‘Texas Preparing for "Juneteenth" Celebration,’ The Negro Star (Wichita, Kansas), June 6, 1941 (p.3)
3. ‘Emancipation Park, Written Historical and Descriptive Data’, Historic American Landscapes Survey, HALS No. TX-7, HABS/HAER/HALS Collection at the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division (available here)
4. ‘It Happened: June 19,’ Milwaukee Star (Milwaukee, Wisconsin), June 27, 1974 (p.5)
5. Editorial, Afro-Hawai'i News (published as Afro-Hawaii News) (Honolulu, Hawaii), July 31, 1991 (p.3)
6. Young, Kevin, ‘Opinion: Juneteenth Is a National Holiday Now. Can It Still Be Black?,’ New York Times, June 18, 2021 (accessed online)