Juneteenth, the oldest nationally celebrated commemoration of the end of slavery in the United States, seems poised to become the nation’s newest federally observed holiday. Also known as “Emancipation Day,” “Freedom Day,” or “Jubilee Day,” Juneteenth recognizes the date on which Union Major General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, to inform enslaved African Americans of their freedom: June 19, 1865. This news essentially came two and a half years after President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation became official on January 1, 1863.
For the remainder of the 1800s, African Americans celebrated the end of the last vestiges of slavery on June 19 with parades, celebratory meals, and festivals. Juneteenth was not only a time for celebration but also for reassuring one another, for prayer and reflection.
“A special custom at Juneteenth celebrations and all that came after is the singing of slave spirituals, the songs that helped bondsmen survive the brutality they endured at their masters’ hands,” said Steve Peraza, Buffalo State assistant professor of history and social studies education. “Today, you can find adults and children still singing on Juneteenth, along with preparing special dishes and participating in parades and festivals throughout African American communities.”
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed legislation in October declaring Juneteenth a state holiday as a way to recognize the achievements of the Black community and to provide an opportunity to reflect on the systematic injustices that still occur today. His decision followed that of at least 45 states and the District of Columbia, which, since 1980, have moved to officially recognize Juneteenth. New York is one of only four states in the country to make Juneteenth a paid holiday for its employees. But on June 15, the U.S. Senate unanimously passed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act, a bill that would make Juneteenth a federal holiday. The bill is expected to pass the House on Wednesday.
This year, Juneteenth has received recognition everywhere from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, which is sponsoring Juneteenth-centered activities, to Food Network magazine, which is highlighting special dishes associated with the holiday. Meanwhile, companies such as Nike, Twitter, and Lyft are making Juneteenth a company holiday.
“It alerts a wider audience that the independence of African Americans didn’t start on July 4, 1776, when American colonists received their independence from Britain—one group of Whites from another. It was no kind of independence for Black people who were still being held in cruel bondage.”
This year’s Juneteenth follows an especially painful year of incidents of police brutality and the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and other Black Americans. It also dovetails with the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement.
“Giving recognition to Juneteenth is a Black Lives Matter phenomenon,” Watson said. “It has to be explicitly stated that Black lives matter because for so long Blacks were not even considered part of the human family in the eyes of white supremacists. Blacks were property to be bought and sold like horses and chickens. It’s very important that Juneteenth is gaining the recognition it has and that Black people’s independence is recognized as a real thing.”
Peraza noted that celebrations of Juneteenth strengthen Black communities.
“Whether one’s family can trace the family lineage to bondage or not, the Black American racial identity continues to resonate,” he said, “because of its successful liberation struggle against slavery, a crime against humanity that enslaved people brought to justice.”
He added that the holiday provides an opportunity for Black individuals to realize not only ongoing challenges but also successes—the passage of constitutional amendments, the dismantling of Jim Crow laws, the election of the country’s first Black president, and police reforms in the wake of George Floyd’s death.
He pointed to the theme of the Juneteenth Festival of Buffalo 2021 celebration, “The Continual Evolution of Juneteenth,” which will be held virtually on Saturday, June 19.
“I certainly see evolution, especially in light of abolitionist movements today fighting police criminality,” Peraza said.
Watson noted that Buffalo has historically enjoyed one of the largest Juneteenth celebrations in the country.
“It’s a model for how to create festivals in the United States and internationally,” he said, adding that the BUILD Organization began the Juneteenth celebration in 1976. It came on the heels of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements, when much of the country was focusing on the bicentennial celebration of White colonists’ independence in 1776.
“The bicentennial didn’t register with Blacks in Buffalo,” he said. “They essentially said, ‘Let’s acknowledge Juneteenth as a more accurate independence day for our people.’ It resonated and made sense to people of African descent.”
While the celebration will be held virtually this year, Watson said, it’s still a cause for celebration.
“Juneteenth has been a powerful phenomenon—when Black people would define for themselves who they are and what kind of future they’re going to produce,” Watson said. “And today, this is the real and symbolic moment when we can start to talk about independence for our ancestors and how we view freedom going forward.”
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