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Juneteenth: The “Other” Independence Day

[June 14, 2024: Revise of a post first published June 2015]

Wednesday June 19, 2024 will mark “Juneteenth National Independence Day.” On Thursday, June 17, 2021, President Biden signed a Juneteenth holiday into law.

Since then, the subject of American History and the role slavery played in the nation’s past–and present–have become an ugly partisan issue. As various states, governors, other politicians, and commentators attempt to diminish the place of slavery in American History, we cannot allow an erasure or whitewashing of this stain on the nation’s soul.

That is why celebrating and understanding “Juneteenth” is more important that ever. We cannot allow it to become just another holiday with sales falling between Memorial Day and July 4th.

The official Juneteenth Committee in East Woods Park, Austin, Texas on June 19, 1900. (Courtesy Austin History Center, Austin Public Library)

I have been writing and speaking about Juneteenth for many years. And I must admit when I wrote about the origins of the event back in 2011 in Smithsonian and again in a New York Times oped in 2015, I honestly did not envision a day when this celebration of freedom would become a federal holiday. So for those still uncertain, here is the background.

Each year, JUNE 19 is a day to mark “Juneteenth” –a holiday celebrating emancipation at the end of the Civil War in 1865. The word, formed from “June” and “nineteenth,” is a portmanteau –one word formed from two, like “brunch” (breakfast and lunch). It marks the date that a Union Army general informed the enslaved people of Texas that they were free.

“SOME two months after Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered on April 9, 1865, effectively ending the Civil War, Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger steamed into the port of Galveston, Tex. With 1,800 Union soldiers, including a contingent of United States Colored Troops, Granger was there to establish martial law over the westernmost state in the defeated Confederacy.

“On June 19, two days after his arrival and 150 years ago today, Granger stood on the balcony of a building in downtown Galveston and read General Order No. 3 to the assembled crowd below. ‘The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free,’ he pronounced.”

Read more of the complete story of Juneteenth in my 2015 New York Times Op-ed, “Juneteenth is for Everyone”.

TO the emancipated people of Texas, the day would be celebrated as “Juneteenth,” a festive holiday marking liberation. It would become a widely shared day of picnics, barbecue, singing, and joy in the African-American community, gradually spreading across the former Confederacy and eventually moving north.

I believe that we have two histories in this country — one white, one black — and they have largely been separate and unequal. The story of Juneteenth is a perfect example of how one of these histories has largely been hidden when we teach American history.

For centuries, slavery was the dark stain on America’s soul, the deep contradiction to the nation’s founding ideals of “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” and “All men are created equal.”

When Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, he took a huge step toward erasing that stain. But the full force of his proclamation would not be realized until June 19, 1865—Juneteenth, as it was called by enslaved people in Texas freed that day.

“Juneteenth: Our Other Independence Day” My article in Smithsonian (June 15, 2011)

The question of how we teach and talk about enslavement is also the subject of my article in Social Education, the Journal of the National Council for the Social Studies. (NCSS). Read: The American Contradiction: Conceived in Liberty, Born in Shackles.

Foods on the Juneteenth altar include beets, strawberries, watermelon, yams and hibiscus tea, as well as a plate of black-eyed peas and cornbread. Credit Jim Wilson/The New York Times

So how will you celebrate?

The holiday and its rich food traditions are highlighted in these New York Times articles: “Building a Juneteenth Menu for the 21st Century” and “Hot Links and Red Drinks”. 

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