The Juneteenth flag created by Ben Haith, founder of
the National Juneteenth Celebration Foundation (NJCF)
in 1997. (Source: Chicago.gov)
Juneteenth refers to the June 19th date commemorating emancipation in the United States that is marked by annual celebration of African American freedom and achievement. On June 16th of this week Congress voted to establish Juneteenth as a federal holiday to commemorate emancipation – the first new official federal holiday approved by Congress since the establishment of Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 1983. While the establishment of June 19th as a national holiday is a step towards recognizing the long history of inequality in the United States, much work remains in the fight to eliminate racism. As we recognize Juneteenth this year, this day is an opportunity for the more privileged members of our society to reflect on our roles in combating the lengthy presence of racism still prevalent in our country today, and to honor and support the resilience of African Americans.
A combination of the words “June” and “nineteen,” Juneteenth refers to June 19th, 1865 – the date in which U.S. Major General Gordon Granger issued General Order No. 3 informing African Americans in Galveston, Texas of the end of the Civil War and their emancipation. Records of official Juneteenth celebrations (originally referred to as “Emancipation Day” celebrations) date back to 1866 with accounts of African Americans in Texas holding events such as picnics, parades, and barbecues in celebration of liberation.
However, as discussed in a 2020 interview with historian and Harvard Assistant Professor of Education Dr. Jarvis R. Givens, it is important to note that Juneteenth is not the first event commemorating freedom for African Americans, but rather is one of many freedom celebrations observed by African Americans throughout history. For example, other Freedom Day celebrations acknowledged by African Americans include celebrations honoring of the establishment of Haiti as the first Black republic in the Americas on January 1, 1804, the end of the transatlantic slave trade on January 1, 1808, and end of slavery in the British West Indies in 1834.
In order to truly begin to comprehend the significance of freedom celebrations such as Juneteenth, it is important to note that these commemorations are multifaceted; that is, they both celebrate the gains in liberation and acknowledge the continued racism and inequality experienced by African Americans. In other words, to date each past Juneteenth has commemorated gains in liberation for African Americans within the context of ongoing suppression. For example, Juneteenth celebrations originally occurred to celebrate the June 19th, 1865 announcement of the emancipation of Texas African Americans, yet this announcement came more than two and a half years after the January 1, 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, therefore resulting in celebrations that occurred within the context of ongoing oppression.
Therefore, the celebration embedded within the Juneteenth holiday should not negate that this commemoration simultaneously is an acknowledgement of past and current injustices and racial trauma experienced by African Americans. For instance, despite the end of chattel slavery in the United States, African Americans continue to be subjected to modern day forms of slavery such as mass incarceration. Dr. Givens describes the multifaceted significance of these celebrations in his 2020 Harvard interview stating: “These Freedom Day celebrations are always commemorative of the suffering Black people experienced as it pertains to slavery….But they’re always aspirational, right? Because while they’re celebrating ‘Freedom,’ there is a deep awareness that freedom for Black people continues to be incomplete.”
This week’s congressional vote to make Juneteenth a federal holiday is a timely example of this incompleteness, as despite the successful passing of Juneteenth National Independence Day Act1, there is still a substantial amount of work that needs to be done to combat systemic racism in the United States. Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D-Ga.) commented on this issue at the June 16th legislative session stating, “I would hope that we would not cash in substantive change for an opportunity to commemorate. I think commemoration ought to drive change and not be a substitute for change.” Therefore, recognition of the federal Juneteenth holiday this year and years to come is a day that commemorates both the past and current injustices and racial trauma experienced by African Americans, as well as a day to honor and empower the African American resilience.
The origination of Juneteenth celebrations emerged from this resiliency, as black people were forced to find creative ways to commemorate this date given the fact that white people often barred black people from celebrating in public spaces in the 19th century. In addition to the successful perseverance of celebrating Juneteenth despite obstacles originating from white supremacy, African Americans also stared the tradition of using these celebrations as opportunities to empower each other. For instance, some of the first Juneteenth celebrations in the late 19th century were used as opportunities for political rallies and to educate African Americans about their voting rights. As Shane Bolles Walsh, a lecturer with the University of Maryland’s African American Studies, told NPR in a recent interview, Juneteenth “…really exemplifies the survival instinct, the ways that we as a community really make something out of nothing. … It’s about empowerment and hopefulness.”
From left to right: Martha Yates Jones and Pinkie Yates
(both in white dresses and hats) sitting in a buggy decorated
with flowers for the annual Juneteenth Celebration parked
in front of Antioch Baptist Church located in Houston’s Fourth
Ward. (Source: Houston Public Library Digital Archives)
So as we at PACEs Connection honor Juneteenth, we ask those who are less familiar with Juneteenth to acknowledge the racial trauma experienced by African Americans and simultaneously honor and empower their resilience. See below for examples of upcoming Juneteenth events around the nation that promote resiliency and empower African Americans, as well as a reading list to learn more about Juneteenth, racial trauma, and healing.
(For references please contact: Rafael Maravilla – rmaravilla@pacesconnection.)
Examples of Upcoming National Juneteenth Events that Promote Resiliency:
*In-person events marked with an asterisk include an option for remote virtual participation
This content was originally published here.