Maya Angelou said, “Hold those things that tell your history and protect them.”
Juneteenth is one of those things we must talk about, protect, and celebrate. We must hold onto the significance of this holiday observed as a state holiday or special day in 45 of the fifty states. It is an observance that is often celebrated by people who understand the value of freedom.
On June 19, 1865, from the balcony of Ashton Villa in Galveston, Texas, Union General Gordon Granger read “General Order No. 3,” announced the total emancipation of all enslaved people in the United States of America. This event took place two years after Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation took effect on January 1, 1863. There were an estimated 250,000 people enslaved in Texas, and who were without knowledge of their emancipation.
The first celebrations were little more than a collective and an individual jubilance followed by planning and strategizing a future. Our newly freed ancestors could not live in the celebration but rather had to learn how to navigate in this country as freed people with limited rights of citizenship. (Full rights of citizenship came with the passing of the 14th Amendment in 1868). And they had to learn how to navigate as a people in a country that had not been accustomed to seeing them as human or equal.
By 1868, however, in Galveston and in other parts of the southern states, freed men, women, and children committed to the annual celebration of Juneteenth or Freedom Day as it is known in Florida and in other areas. The first celebrations varied between outdoor food-focused celebrations to festivals to parades to more formal celebrations like galas replete with beauty pageants. By the beginning of the 1900s, Juneteenth celebrations were taking place all over the migration trails from the south to the north and from the south to the extreme coasts of the United States. As African Americans migrated, many took the observance with them to their new communities.
By the 1960s, Juneteenth was all but a memory and minor footnote in our history. Interest was slowly resurrected when the state of Texas adopted it as a legal holiday and later as the internet enabled the idea to spread. We are experiencing a renaissance of Juneteenth celebrations nationwide that must be more than a passing phase. Events like the festivals in Charlotte and Atlanta keep growing by the year as are other events in northern California and across the pond in Europe and Asia facilitated by servicemen and women. We need to hold on, protect, and talk about it as a collective, and observe it with fervor.
To be clear, we are not celebrating a day or some random date in history, we are celebrating something more valuable. We are celebrating our humanity and a history of resilience through the most inhumane of circumstances. We are celebrating our blackness in the grandest of ways, ways that don’t require permission or forgiveness.
On June 19, we should adorn ourselves in red – the color closely associated with earlier Juneteenth celebrations – and eat foods of our culinary traditions. Though most of us will have to work on that day, we should incorporate some acknowledgment of its significance on our social media timelines, and in our conversations. We need to introduce our children to books about Juneteenth.
Whatever we do and however we choose to observe Juneteenth, we should do with the purpose of keeping the importance of the day alive through the generations to come. Why? Because like voting, remembering that our freedom came at a cost – was bought for a price – is essential to our empowerment as a people.
Visit the Dinner1865 Instagram feed for more information about Juneteenth.
About the contributor: Anthony Rodell is Chief Architect Officer, Reid Rodell, in the greater Washington, DC area, and the co-founder of the 1865 Experience, a company endeavoring to make Juneteenth observances as significant as celebrating the fourth of July, if not more so.