Thoughts on Juneteenth
Mitch Kachun is Associate Professor of History at Western Michigan University. He recently edited, along with William L. Andrews, The Curse of Caste; or The Slave Bride. The Curse of Caste is the first novel ever published by a black American woman. Kachun, who also authored, Festivals of Freedom: Memory and Meaning in African American Emancipation Celebrations, 1808-1915, will speak at a Juneteenth celebration in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, on June 23, 2007.
I first learned about Juneteenth while I was in graduate school in the early 1990s. I had expressed to a fellow student my interest in researching the history of African American emancipation celebrations in the 19th century, and she said, “Oh, you mean like Juneteenth?” And I said, “Huh?”
Today, if Americans have any knowledge at all about commemorations of the end of U.S. slavery, their reference point is generally Juneteenth. The term is a contraction for June 19th, the date in 1865 when Major General Gordon Granger landed at Galveston, Texas, and announced that slavery in that former Confederate state had ended and that all African Americans were free. In 1980 the state of Texas designated Juneteenth as an official state holiday, and at least 13 other states list Juneteenth as an official holiday, though most do not close their government offices. Now hundreds of communities large and small across the United States observe Juneteenth.
So why was I unaware of Juneteenth’s existence until the 1990s? I was just beginning my study of emancipation celebrations in black communities in the late nineteenth century, and Juneteenth was an anomaly then, its celebration limited to Texas and parts of surrounding states. When migrating Texans tried to instigate Juneteenth celebrations in other regions, they were often ridiculed. The fact is that there were many different dates celebrated to commemorate the end of American slavery, most—like Juneteenth—with local or regional significance. Blacks in the North and upper Midwest often celebrated on August 1, a date they had observed for decades to mark Great Britain’s abolition of slavery in the West Indies. Many communities observed the January 1 date of Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation or the September 22 date of his 1862 Preliminary Proclamation. African Americans in southern Virginia often celebrated April 9 as “Surrender Day,” to mark General Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. Richmond blacks celebrated April 3rd—the date United States troops took control of the former Confederate capital. In parts of Tennessee, oral traditions contend that August 8th was the day to celebrate because that was when President Andrew Johnson freed his own slaves at his Greenville home in 1865. In response to a grassroots movement, Tennessee recently declared the 8th of August an official holiday.
This proliferation of dates is one reason that African American activists have had difficulty joining together to lobby for one single date for an official national holiday commemorating the end of slavery. Of course, white racism and lack of support for any such holiday was—and to a large degree remains—an enormous obstacle. Today, however, there is a concerted effort and increasing momentum among many groups to create an official Juneteenth National Holiday. One snag in this process is that, in fact, we already have an official national holiday commemorating the end of slavery. In 1948 President Harry S Truman signed a bill designating February 1 as National Freedom Day, honoring the date in 1865 when Abraham Lincoln signed a congressional joint resolution creating the Thirteenth Amendment, which formally abolished slavery in the United States upon its ratification later that year.
So why do we not observe National Freedom Day, and why do many African Americans work to establish a Juneteenth National Holiday? I can’t say for sure, but I think there are some fundamental reasons that many believe Juneteenth to be the most appropriate emancipation holiday. The date, June 19, 1865, represents the lengthy delay between Lincoln’s issuance of the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation and the day when enslaved black Texans learned of their liberation. To many activists this lag symbolizes the continued delays in achieving full racial equality in America, thus making Juneteenth more representative of the emancipation process than other dates. Moreover, both the January 1 date of Lincoln’s Proclamation and the official February 1 National Freedom Day call attention primarily to the actions of white politicians, rather than to the actions of African Americans or to the complexities and contestation emancipation has engendered in American history and culture.
When you get right down to it, it seems perfectly consistent with America’s national ethos that we should have a national observance celebrating the end of slavery. After all, until 1865 the nation was living a lie. Legally condemning and forbidding human bondage finally put the nation’s laws in alignment with its founding principles of liberty and equality. A holiday in itself, of course, cannot create social, political, and economic justice. But it can serve as a reminder that there are ideals toward which we still need to strive, in our communities, in our nation, and in the world.