written by Dr. Craig Stutman
The Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, ratified on December 6, 1865, declared that the institution of slavery and involuntary servitude had been officially terminated (“except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted”). Yet the process of emancipation had, in reality, started centuries earlier. In fact, its history has spanned the countless mutinies which had occurred on ships carrying enslaved Africans to the shores of the New World to the 1739 Stono Rebellion in South Carolina; it has been forged by Gabrielle Prosser, Denmark Vessey, and Nat Turner’s revolutions; it was driven by an African-American led abolitionist movement with leaders such as Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, and William Still; and it was powered by those who were the enslaved freedom seekers themselves– the men, women, and children who risked their lives for autonomy, self-determination, and one day, citizenship.
Emancipation celebrations had also occurred in both the South and the North as well; parades and festivities in which people rejoiced in the aftermath of Toussaint Le Overture’s War for Haitian Independence, for instance, were commonplace and celebrated for decades throughout nineteenth century African-American communities. But the nation was not kind, as even in the North antebellum white supremacy was rampant, and white riots and rioters often destroyed African-American communities. Conflagrations occurred in cities such as Philadelphia, whose Abolitionist Hall was burned down in May of 1838 and whose Lombard Street Massacre saw the destruction of The Second African Presbyterian Church. Ironically, the Lombard Street “riot” occurred when Philadelphia’s African-American community was parading, carrying flags, and celebrating Jamaican Independence Day, and also commemorating the abolition of Slavery in the West Indies.
When the Civil War finally broke out several decades later, the North as well as the South was not immune to the plague of white supremacy or the reluctance of granting equal rights and true freedom to its African-American residents. Obtaining citizenship, in reality, was actually more precarious than ever–especially after the 1857 Dred Scott Case reaffirmed the United States Constitution’s commitment to the founders’ support for slavery and white supremacy—as Justice Taney supported the original wording of the 3/5ths compromise and expressed that African-Americans could never be citizens because in his mind they were only 3/5ths of a human. The revision to this abominable error would not formally and legally come about until the 14th Amendment would be ratified during Reconstruction in 1868.
Meanwhile, on September 22, 1862, one and a half years after the start of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln announced the Emancipation Proclamation “as a fit and necessary war measure,” and declared that “…on the 1st day of January, A.D. 1863, all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States shall be then, thenceforward and forever free…” It was at this point that the United States government inched towards freedom. But this freedom would only be obtained due to the efforts of the newly formed USCT (United States Colored Troops) regiments, authorized by the Emancipation Proclamation, and mustered up to fight against the scourge of the slave system, participating as key players in battles all across the South and West.
When African-American ministers in the Sea Islands of South Carolina and Georgia met with Union General William Tecumseh Sherman and his army as the latter were marching from Atlanta to Savannah near the end of the war, they advocated for the re-confiscation of plantations for land of their own. Sherman’s Special Field Order #15, enacted in January of 1865, saw to it that the coastline stretching from Charleston, South Carolina, to the St. John’s River in Florida–including Georgia’s Sea Islands–was confiscated, and Sherman effectively granted “40 acres and a mule” to the freedmen and freedwomen– a gift that would tragically be rescinded in a year’s time by the autocratic rule and racist policies of President Andrew Johnson, Lincoln’s successor after his assassination.
When the Civil War finally ended in April of 1865, it took several more months for the news to spread to the furthest reaches of the confederacy, in particular to the state of Texas. Among that news was the pronouncement that the war was finally over, and the institution of slavery, at least in the rebelling states, had been abolished. This is when and where the origin story of Juneteenth had begun. During that journey, in which many USCT troops were involved in disseminating this great news, it wasn’t until June of 1865 when units such as the 22nd USCT infantry from Pennsylvania and New Jersey, who along with more than two thousand Federal soldiers of the 13th Army Corps entered Galveston, Texas, on the border with Mexico. And it was there that Major General Gordon Granger issued his General Order No. 3 at numerous locations, and readers of the document were sent out to sites such as the Reedy Chapel-AME Church to share the news. The order notified all Texans that those who were formerly enslaved were to be now and forever free.
Interviews and Reflections
I reached out to a number of activists, scholars, museum professionals, and others to ask them to reflect upon Juneteenth, and also what it means to them personally. Some of the responses that follow are taken from interviews with these individuals, and some are simply brief reflections that were sent to me. I will begin with Ronald Brown, who as the President and CEO of the Pennsylvania Juneteenth Coalition and the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation, chronicled his involvement with his policy work and advocacy over the past 25 years to get Juneteenth to be observed by both the City of Philadelphia and the State of Pennsylvania.
Ronald Brown, President and CEO of the Pennsylvania Juneteenth Coalition and the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation
Policy and Advocacy:
“I started this advocacy in 1995, and by 1997 I had started the first Juneteenth festival, and that was up in Germantown. Eventually, I got a citation from the city of Philadelphia recognizing the importance of our putting on these events, and in 2001, I went up to Harrisburg with Representative John Myers (Philadelphia) of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, to introduce a resolution in the House, calling for Juneteenth to be a recognized state holiday. In a vote of 191 to zero, the House of Representatives said that yes, they recognize your holiday [not as a legal holiday but as one of recognition].”
“In 2003, I was able to get the Pennsylvania State Senate to do the same thing through State Senator Shirley Kitchen, introducing legislation to call it a ‘recognized holiday.’ Then you can take this story all the way up to last year, where in June of 2019, with the help of Rep. Sue Helms of Harrisburg, we introduced a bill into the House so that Juneteenth would finally become a state ‘legal’ holiday. I also talked with Pennsylvania State Senator Sharif Street of Philadelphia so we could introduce it into the State Senate as well. It then went from the State Senate into a state government committee, where it was voted upon unanimously. And then all you needed was Governor Wolf’s signature, so on June 19, 2019, on Juneteenth of last year, the governor signed the bill into law– HB 619– making Juneteenth a state legal holiday.”
History and Meaning of Juneteenth:
“I know that when I was growing up, and I was in high school, Juneteenth and a lot of African-American history for that matter was left out of the history books. And, you know, you’re at a disadvantage when you begin to look at the issue of racism in the schools and in society. You even have Philadelphia at the base of it, at the core of it, at the foundation of it, on the northern side of the Mason-Dixon Line. Going back to the colony of Pennsylvania’s start, we see that even William Penn owned slaves, and racism occurred against African-Americans well into the nineteenth century. The German Quakers and Mennonites of Germantown however– they protested in 1688 against slavery. They disagreed with the rest of the Quakers who did own slaves.”
“But later, in the 1830’s and 40’s, many whites in the city were like, ‘I’m going to burn African American houses down. I’m going to burn his churches down. I’m going to kill them.’ So you had these attacks that were constantly going on. But one thing that changed this equation a little bit, at least in Philadelphia, was that the Irish, who as new immigrants were often pitted against African-Americans in some of this racial violence, decided to join them on the battlefield once the Civil War came on.”
“A year after the start of the war, and because of African-Americans and Quakers and other abolitionists pushed him, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation that would go into effect on January 1 1863. Just prior to that date, you had something called the watch-night service. And those ministers and congregants who gathered in African-American churches all across the North in churches prayed that Lincoln would do the right thing the next day, and they hoped that Lincoln would ‘grant us total freedom.’ And that activity became the New Year’s resolution for the African American community.”
“But another thing that motivated many individuals to support the war effort and even join the cause was the fact that in their minds, although they may have not been enslaved in the North and in places like Philadelphia, people were still enslaved in the southern states–south of the Mason-Dixon line. So individuals like Octavius Catto [who now has a statue at Philadelphia’s City Hall] and others gathered up possible recruits, and marched from the Seventh Ward where many in the African-American community lived to the Liberty Bell, for a reading of the Emancipation Proclamation. Now, right there on the Liberty Bell, there is an inscription, and it was one that the African-American community of that tome discussed–a passage from the Bible, Leviticus 25 verse 10. It says that we need to stop the oppression of one to the other, return to your tribe, and reunite your family, and so from that passage they were very clear what their mission was: they had to go and stop the oppression of one to another, reunite their families, and reunite their tribe.”
“After the start of the Civil War, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, William Still, Ebenezer Bassett, and many other African-American abolitionists, all asked Lincoln to use African-American troops, and after his Emancipation proclamation, which finally authorized that request, they all went out to recruit USCT troops throughout the Mid-Atlantic and New England. Many of the USCT troops, even regiments from other states, trained at camp William Penn, which is located right there on Cheltenham Avenue and has a Pennsylvania State Marker. The 68th, the 22nd, the 41st, the 43rd, the 125th and the 127th, all USCST regiments that had trained at Camp William Penn, went into battle at sites like Petersburg, Virginia, where the generals put them on the front lines and into the trenches right away.”
“After taking heavy casualties, these units regrouped and were able to go back and defeat the Confederacy at the siege of Petersburg, destroy confederate supply lines, and fight gallantly at the battle of New Market Heights. Then, they were all rolled into one unit called the 25th Corps and they were sent into Appomattox, engaged in a couple of battles and skirmishes on its outskirts, and helped pave the way for Lee’s surrender. In fact, after Lee surrendered to Grant, the 22nd marched on with Lincoln victoriously to Richmond, and because they were devastated after Lincoln’s assassination and the installation of Andrew Johnson as President, they participated in both President Lincoln’s funeral procession as well as being even deployed to find John Wilkes Booth—whom they captured on the Eastern Shore of Maryland.”
“The 22nd then joined up with the other five USCT infantries once again, and were all mustered to go to Texas. All along the way they told those who were enslaved that they were now free. When they finally got into Texas, they had already traveled hundreds of miles throughout the South, from plantation to plantation, ending up last in Galveston, Texas, near the Rio Grande River and the Mexican border. The dates that they arrived fell between June 13th and June 19th, 1865, and once there they came upon the last Africans to be given the information that the Civil War was over and that they were now free.
“In Galveston, General Gordon Granger issued his General Order Number Three authorizing complete freedom– two years, five months, and 18 days to the day after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was issued. And while Granger’s order explicitly said they could not get welfare or government support, it did use the language “forever free.” As they began to celebrate they thought amongst each other ‘what should this day be called’ and they thought well, ‘this all happened between June 13th and June 19th, so let’s call it Juneteenth–African American Independence Day.’ So as many of them had talked about earlier when reflecting upon their mission at the Liberty Bell–they talked about stopping the oppression of others; the oppression was stopped. They talked about the reuniting of the family; the family was reunited. And they talked about returning to the tribe—they were returned to the tribe.”
Joe Becton has been a Director of Visitor Services and retired as a Supervisory Park Ranger from the National Park Service. He created his own company Becton Tours and Historical Services and is the co-founder of the 3rd Regiment Unites States Colored Troops Civil War Reenactors, and the First Rhode Island Regiment American Revolutionary War Reenactors
“I’ve been trying to get people to have a look at this, if you will, as a holiday and a celebration with a connection to history, culture, language, food, and music for a long time. I travel a lot, and I recently went up to Fairbanks, Alaska, and I was there during a Juneteenth celebration. Oh, wonderful food, traditional foods, that was nice. Decent music, you know, James Brown’s funky stuff, but no mention of the Civil War soldiers! So after about a couple of hours of eating and drinking, and talking to people who were some of the organizers, I asked them about–actually I had my Civil War hat on—if they wanted to learn about the USCT. They said oh, yes– that’s good. Yes, sir. We will be back here next year if you want to come back. But I was standing there right? Right. (laughs).
“I’ve also attended Juneteenth events in Pensacola, Florida too. And in Texas. All the way to Alaska. And quite often they say little to nothing about the USCT. That’s my big thing. And literally, in Philadelphia, we had four regiments of the United States Colored Troops, who immediately after the surrender of Richmond went down to Texas to take their place there and were part of Juneteenth’s beginnings. These units were the 22nd USCT, the 41st USCT, the 43rdUSCT, and the 45th USCT. All of them were at the Battle of the Crater in Petersburg, fighting in and witnessing one of the war’s most horrible scenes. Actually, the 41st— their commander, was really smart– he went around the edge of the crater; the 43rd didn’t end up in the middle of the crater either; but the 45th ended up in the middle of the crater with everybody else. But we were everywhere! In fact, the 22nd was also at a New Market Heights and at at Appomattox Courthouse as well.”
“As to General Gordon Granger’s General Order Number Three–So many people find this so exciting. But as I read it, it says, ‘you’re free, but stay where you are, keep working for the same master– he’s supposed to pay you,’ and, most importantly ‘don’t come around me.’ I don’t find it so celebratory myself, but people did find it celebratory, as the descriptions were of people crying and praying…but one of the things many people did do was to get out of there, to move! Many thought—‘well we better get up and leave!’ One of the biggest rumors about Black history is that we don’t care about our family, but this is the perfect example of how some people walked two thousand miles from places like Texas, Mississippi, and Louisiana, all the way back to someplace they heard of called Virginia….some stories have people taking ten years to get back home, but persisting until they did. The real people who didn’t care about their families were those who impregnated enslaved women and sold their children into slavery.”
“I look at Juneteenth as a doorway, a gateway that opened up, so yeah—we fought all these battles, we won the battles, the confederacy was controlled, you can’t really say they were beaten. You can say controlled. But then we opened the door—government, churches, education…Black and Tan governments brought the South into the Progressive Era.”
“What we end up with, of course, are African-American Reconstruction era legislators like Josiah Walls of Florida, originally enslaved in Virginia and taken to Harrisburg, but after he was freed he went to Camp William Penn where he enlisted in the 3rd USCT regiment. When he later settled in Florida he became a politician and he redistributed up to 30,000 acres of confiscated confederate land to give to black farmers. A much different result than our Pennsylvania supporter of ‘40 acres and a mule’ [Thaddeus Stevens]. He couldn’t get it done. But Joshua Walls, he could. Now, another really big Reconstruction era name that I always talk about is Martin Delaney. Martin was just amazing–African Explorer, newspaperman, author– just amazing. He used to write for and edit the North Star as well—Frederick Douglass’ paper. He went on a trip up the Niger River came back and said ‘I found a wonderful place in Africa we can go—we finally got a place we can go.’ But Frederick Douglass said no–come back here– maybe let’s look into Haiti instead [from 1891 to 1893 Douglass was the country’s United States minister and general consul to Haiti].”
“When we came out of the Civil War, we’ve got all these wonderful things. Of course, in the North, we had our own reconstruction too, right? The trolley boycott, the Equal Rights League….African-Americans were really on the move. Yet unfortunately, when we get the right to vote, Philly went back to her old ways of rioting [After Octavius V. Cato led the streetcar boycott and the equal rights movements, he got assassinated on Election Day, October, 1871]. When whites in Philly don’t get what they want they riot. That’s a story I’ve also been telling for years—that is from the 1820s all the way up to the 1940s, most of the riots in Philadelphia were white riots.”
“And of course down in the South they just went bonkers. The Okaloosa Riot, the Colfax Massacre, the Memphis and New Orleans’ ‘riots,’ all of this white violence towards Blacks in the North and the South forced Juneteenth celebrations to go underground.”
“In the South too– it was oppression. Some people asked well, ‘why didn’t my grandfather or great grandfather tell me about them being in the Civil War’….well the answer is because it wasn’t funny! It wasn’t a joke! The White Pytheans or the ‘Knights of Whatever’ would come around and blow you away for bragging about being a soldier in the Union Army. And they didn’t even share the history with us children because they knew we would talk about it. But that’s a problem—why we don’t go to graveyards or have respect for our ancestors—basically because we don’t know the hsitory. Everyone knows about Al Capone, but not enough of us know about African-American history.”
Q. Craig Stutman–So when you said that Juneteenth went underground, how were these events celebrated in the late 19th or early to mid-20th century, up until the late 20th century?
“Yes, they moved into the small towns and to the churches. The AME Zion churches, The AME church, the Baptist churches. So they moved into those places and they had their celebrations under the framework of the church, right. And they also went to other Black-owned establishments like dance halls or fraternal and sororal societies.”
Q. Craig Stutman– Is there something about Juneteenth that drives you and others to push it to be recognized, or anything you want people to know about the complexities about celebrating it? For instance, I have had people talk to me that are more conflicted, because they were a little concerned about it becoming maybe overly commercial or were thinking about how while it’s important to celebrate freedom, it didn’t come with the end of slavery, and that Juneteenth really symbolizes the beginning of a long struggle for freedom.
“True. Some of the problems are that people often refer to Lincoln as the Great Emancipator–ideas that are in my opinion too simplistic. They haven’t read Lerome Bennetts’s Book [Forced into Glory: Abraham Lincoln’s White Dream]. So they have all these misconceptions about what Juneteenth was and why we were celebrating it. The Civil War Museum’s Hari Jones used to talk about this before he died. Hari’s point was, yes, Juneteenth was important, yes, Juneteenth should be remembered, yes, Juneteenth should be celebrated–but don’t hold on to myths and misconceptions. We do need Juneteenth as a holiday. It is a tradition. It comes to us with our churches and our songs and our food and our history; it’s all a part of that tradition. And of course, the essence of the tradition is our fight to define freedom. Freedom is not yet fully defined. But if you look at our stories– Africans in America–you see how we had to fight for family, fight to have property, and fight to have an education. Each one of these things defines freedom in its own element. So while they keep yelling, ‘documentation, documentation, documentation,’ this story issuper documented. And it’s all over America everywhere you look. Yes, we need this. We need this because we’re coalescing a culture, if you will.”
“It’s like the Germans or Italians. When they started, they were city-states—they weren’t a nation. They wrote a history saying ‘we have the same language, we have the same culture’….so they use history to tie all those city states together, and created, under Garibaldi for example, Italia. And that is what we’re doing. We have the same traditions, the same culture, the same language, the same music, all these things that we ae doing together–and all these things that we do are part of us collectively. And that’s the same kind of stuff the Germans used to create Germany, the same kind of stuff the Italians used to create Italy. We’re in the business of creating a culture. But the essence of it all is that by understanding what we did, it helps us to better understand who we are now.”
Ivan Henderson, Vice President of Programming at The African American Museum in Philadelphia
Q. Craig Stutman—I wanted to ask what your thoughts were on Juneteenth, the fact that Philly has made it a holiday, the federal discussion on making it a holiday, and the State of Pennsylvania making it a holiday last year.
“You know, it’s good to have more widespread recognition of Juneteenth. I grew up not knowing what it was for maybe the first 14 or 15 years of my life. And once I heard about it, I wanted to learn more about it. I think it’s interesting that it’s not even ubiquitous in African American communities– not everybody black celebrates it, but it’s persisted for over 150 years. This organically and iteratively transmitted cultural practice has taken on a lot of shapes and forms, but it’s pretty cool that it’s been able to spread and persist. And I think that’s good. I always wonder, beyond joy, the mix of emotions that must have been felt by those last folks who, between June 13th and 19th, finally heard that legally they’re supposed to be free. I’m sure there were a bunch of other emotions that went along with it. And, because those people were not–and their descendants still are not–the majority, it’s not just their reaction, it’s the whole country’s and the world’s reactions that we ought to stop and think about around Juneteenth. Also–what did that mean for everyone that slavery was ending in this way? It was a war move—so maybe not as compassionate or idealistic a move as we want to believe it to have been.”
“We are in a place where we can think a little more critically about it. I think that the political and state recognition of Juneteenth is a step in the right direction. I wonder what will it mean to people moving forward? A lot of folks still don’t take the King Day of Service seriously. But I think it’s important to have these things on the books. Juneteenth wasn’t just a good day for black people and for enslaved Africans, it was good day for the country and the world. And so I think that recognizing it citywide, statewide, and nationwide is admitting that.”
Q. Craig Stutman—“Do you think that there’s connection to the memorials being toppled all over the place, not only in the South, but worldwide, as symbols of slavery and colonialism are being confronted?
“I think the tone of all discourses has shifted. And I believe that while you’re in the process of tearing down monuments, you erect new ones–creative destruction—and is necessary. I can imagine that there will be a day where folks say, ‘well, what do we need Juneteenth for,” or ‘what do we need July 4th for’– maybe all of these things in hundreds of years won’t matter to anybody, or the way we think about them will be so different that they won’t necessarily hold the same weight anymore. But right now, in the moment that we’re in, and seeing how far we have not come….for instance the technology changes but people’s motives don’t, and some of the biases and prejudices shift a little but don’t change enough.”
“It’s a short game and a long game– in the short term I think there will be a good, positive impact as Juneteenth is more widely recognized. In the long term, it will be embedded into our psyche like all of the other holidays. Folks will have to pause. But you know, maybe it’ll be my kids’ kids one day who say ‘what is this Juneteenth’ because it’s not passed down by oral tradition but instead only pops up on their calendars. I worry about the danger that comes with others’ attitudes such as ‘we’ve already had a black president and there’s no more racism,’ or ‘we’ve now got Juneteenth so what else do you want’ It’s like they are saying that, ‘you are now legally granted your long overdue freedom which never should have been a question in the first place.’ “
“I’m happy that we get together as communities. For me, learning about Juneteenth was akin to that rare thing of cultural property that we owned and was not mandated and supported. In a way that narrative changes now that it’s accepted—it’s like underground hip hop going mainstream, or an underground rapper going mainstream–you lose part of the audience forever. And so it can’t help but become commercialized in some way. The “Wawa Juneteenth Celebration,” or that equivalent—it’s going to have some great elements and some watered down elements. I think we’ll gain some and we’ll lose some, but hopefully, the folks to whom it is the most enriching and most uplifting and affirming can still enjoy it and can still look around and get something out of others who maybe don’t share their same ancestry but are enjoying it as well.”
“Also—it’s beyond celebration–drinks, cookouts, roasted corn, games—that’s all good. But I hope that as it goes mainstream, well then we need to work on mainstream issues on that day. And those come in a lot of colors, and maybe it’s more reflection and critical thought along with celebration.”
Lori Latrice Martin, is professor in the Department of Sociology and African & African American Studies at Louisiana State University. Born and raised in Nyack, New York, Martin has published 15 books and numerous other scholarly works
Juneteenth is perhaps one of the best reminders of the limitations associated with relying on laws and other public policies to change the subordinate status of black people in America. Juneteenth honors the lives and sacrifices of countless black men, women, and children who “chose the sea” or were exploited for their labor and forced to live out their days in physical bondage. Juneteenth also honors and acknowledges the legacy of their suffering as shown in persistent and enduring racial inequalities between white and black people in America. These racial inequalities are often made worse with the implementation of seemingly colorblind proclamations, acts, and policies. It is no secret that the Emancipation Proclamation, while an important historical document, did not actually free anyone.
It is also well documented that the period immediately following the adoption of the Amendments that ended slavery, extended citizenship to black people, and granted black men the right to vote was an especially violent period in American history. The Ku Klux Klan was formed. The lynching of black people was a family affair for far too many white people in the North and the South. Race riots, where angry white mobs destroyed entire black communities, dotted the American landscape, such as in the case of the Tulsa Race Riot in 1921. Efforts to pull America out of the Great Depression in the 1930s excluded many black workers and soon thereafter, average white Americans because homeowners for the first time and accumulated massive amounts of wealth to the exclusion of black people, including black veterans and black active-duty servicemen and women.
The historic Supreme Court’s call for the integration of schools was unanswered in many places in America. Schools in some parts of the country today could best be classified as hyper-segregated. Wars on Drugs and Poverty led to the mass incarceration of black men, which provided fuel for the prison-industrial complex. White flight and a lack of investment into public schools and distressed communities created separate education tracts. One tract was largely white and the other largely black. In the predominately white tract, students were prepared for college and careers. The predominately black tract included pipelines for black children from school to jail or prison or employment in the insecure and unpredictable secondary sector of the labor market. The militarization of police forces has led to the occupation of majority-black communities and the criminalization and hyper-surveillance of black bodies.
The names of black men, women, and children in the last decade killed by police and civilians are too numerous to list. The killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota, represented an awakening for some Americans. For many others, the inhumane treatment of Mr. Floyd was yet another example of how little value is placed on black lives. While many people are calling for reforms and other policy changes to address racial inequalities in America, Juneteenth is a reminder of the limitations of statements, proclamations, and public policies and the permanence of America’s racialized social system.
Adrienne G. Whaley, Senior Manager of K-12 Education at the Museum of the American Revolution and President of the African American Genealogy Group (Philadelphia)
I think Juneteenth has such resonance because it’s an opportunity to celebrate a freedom that applied to us (African Americans). Being asked to celebrate the Fourth of July can feel hollow for a lot of people when the radicalism of that moment in 1776, and of the larger Revolutionary Era, stopped short of welcoming people of African descent into the fold of belonging. There were absolutely moments of promise and we can’t paint all Revolutionaries with the same brush, but African Americans have been banging at that door of full citizenship ever since – and still are, as recent events make clear.
Juneteenth marks the end of full political and legal acceptance of the brutal institution of chattel slavery. It was the turning of a corner that must have felt full of hope and possibility. The sense that self-determination might finally be possible – even if it was tempered by fear of the unknown, or maybe even cynicism – must have been so powerful for our ancestors! And actually, I think that may be another part of Juneteenth’s resonance – the opportunity to stand and celebrate in memory of our ancestors, to remember them and say their names and try to see the world through their eyes and remind ourselves to try to walk in ways that make us “their wildest dreams.” I think it’s about resilience and perseverance and hope. And Juneteenth is a chance to discover or rediscover elements of our diverse African heritages, when so often African Americans have been asked to erase and forget where we came from unless our heritage and culture benefits larger American society. Juneteenth says remember and stay connected, even as you move forward with power and purpose.
Tamara Anderson is an advocate for children and teens, an anti-racist trainer, a professional artist, editor, freelance journalist, and blogger with over 20 years of experience as an educator. She is one of the founding steering committee members of the National Black Lives Matter Week of Action at Schools, a core member of the Racial Justice Organizing Committee, and a core organizer of Philly-Black Lives Matter Week at Schools
This year Juneteenth is a day to remember that our very breath is not promised. Black people breathing to see another day is not guaranteed. In previous years, I have been celebrated with music, dance, family, and Black joy. But tomorrow, I am reminded of the fallen that we lost and for those we continue to lose each and every day. Today marks Freedom Day for all Black people. It is the 4th of July that we never received because Black bodies were enslaved when that document was read at the square in Philadelphia. So while we mark our freedom from enslavement, let us remember that none of us want partial freedoms mired in racist ideologies and practices. We seek a day when laws are no longer required to guarantee our human rights to breathe, celebrate, and most importantly live.
Joshua Leach has worked in youth development and leadership in New York City for several years. He presently leads fundraising efforts as Assistant Director of Development and Strategic Initiatives with Read Alliance (READ), an early literacy program. Joshua is a member of the Toni Morrison Society and serves on the Society’s Bench by the Road Project committee.
It is of little surprise to me that, at this particular and critical flashpoint in our history, Juneteenth has come into focus in the mainstream. I believe my earliest encounter with the concept of the day occurred around my years as an undergrad. The recognition of Juneteenth by local and state governments, in combination with Black Lives Matter demonstrations, the removal of racist iconography from products by major corporations (e.g. Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben’s), and the removal of statues celebrating Confederate leaders and other offensive historical figures (you won’t find statues of Nazi officials in Germany), though long overdue, points to a necessary dynamic shift toward the centering of Black History as crucially American History. I look forward to experiencing what the outcomes of the focus on this Juneteenth and those to come will be on our culture and society.
Trapeta B. Mayson is a Liberian-born poet, teacher, social worker, and non-profit administrator. She is also the city of Philadelphia’s 2020-2021 Poet Laureate. She is a recipient of a Pew Fellowship in Literature, Leeway Transformation Award, Leeway Art and Change Grant and Pennsylvania Council on the Arts Grants
I’ve participated in some aspects of Juneteenth- celebrating, acknowledging, learning and informing myself of the history for the last several years. There is so much ground to cover. Knowing the history of Juneteenth and the facts surrounding it are key, but what’s more important is that Black people took something that was born out of injustices and atrocities and found a place to honor, celebrate and remember is amazing. The fact that the rest of the country is coming on board is great, but for many people, it has always been important and worth acknowledging.
Carolyn Denard is the Associate Provost for Student Success and Strategic Initiatives and Professor of English at Georgia College and State University. Dr. Denard’s is also the Founder and the Board Chair of the Toni Morrison Society
In North Mississippi, we celebrate 8 of May as Freedom Day. I have always liked the internal, community-based nature of holiday. As a national holiday, I fear that the internal, in-group nature of the celebration might be lost.
Yvonne Jefferson Atkinson, is a retired professor of English at Mt. San Jacinto College and was the Past President of the Toni Morrison Society. Her articles appear in The Aesthetics of Toni Morrison: Speaking the Unspeakable and she was the editor of Ethnic Literary Traditions in American Children’s Literature
I can tell you a personal story: My family has always celebrated Juneteenth. There were BBQs, games, music, and the ubiquitous storytelling. One story was about a relative who was enslaved in Texas. When the word came of freedom she was working in the field. The story goes that she threw down her hoe and declared that she was going to California. She walked for days and ended up in Northeast Louisiana. Everyone would fall out laughing. Some were old enough to remember her. This year, because of the coronavirus, the family adapted our get together and zoomed. As always, we still had our BBQs, games, music, and the ubiquitous storytelling, and the story of our “roundabout” ancestor was told once again.
Wil Turner is an Associate Professor of English at Delaware Valley University. He specializes in African American Literature, Adaptation Studies, Film Studies and Narrative Theory, and is an award-winning playwright. Dr. Turner is also the publication advisor for The Gleaner, DVU’s literary journal
To be honest, I’m conflicted about the day itself. While it marks a significant event in American history worthy of celebration, it’s also a reminder of just how far we haven’t come as a nation. The words of W.E.B. Du Bois sum up my feelings more succinctly: “The slave went free; stood a brief moment in the sun, then moved back again toward slavery.” The day is bittersweet. Our humanity was given to us in theory, but not in practice. They may have removed the iron collar from around our necks, but merely replaced it with an equally oppressive knee. Are we really free?
Links to 2021 Philadelphia Area Juneteenth Events
Links to contributor websites