An emancipation celebration, Juneteenth is recognized all over the United States. On June 19, 1865, Union Army officer Major General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, and made the following announcement:
The people of Texas are hereby informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States of America, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages.
Thus was established one of the most enduring Emancipation Day celebrations in the United States, popularly known as “Juneteenth,” which marks the formal end of African enslavement. President Abraham Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation to go into effect on January 1, 1863, for those states that were in succession against the Union. However, that decree was not implemented in Texas for more than 17 months after the original emancipation order was to have taken effect. By the time of Granger's announcement, Lincoln had been assassinated, the Confederate forces had been defeated and had formally surrendered at Appomattox Court House, and most other southern states were reeling from the defeat and adjusting to a new social reality.
Juneteenth was one of several emancipation observations. There were others in Oklahoma, Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, North Carolina, and South Carolina, but by far the longest lasting has been the Texas observance, held annually on June 19. Initially, the day had a functional purpose. During the period when the state was occupied by federal troops, black leaders, white missionaries, and other good Samaritans of the Freedmen's Bureau used the date to instruct newly freed blacks about their rights and entitlements as free citizens. Gradually, the date took on a more festive atmosphere. This direction continued throughout the balance of the 19th century and into the 20th and 21st centuries.
Certain traditions came to be associated with the Juneteenth observance into the 20th century. Some of the practices date back to festivals set in African tradition during the colonial era. There was, for example, a parade in which a “Juneteenth king and queen” might be selected through balloting. Another feature of the early Juneteenth observation was to invite any formerly enslaved Africans in the area to be given a place of honor (such as in the parade) and given the opportunity to recount for a younger generation their experiences in bondage. Some formerly enslaved African Americans who had left Texas and escaped to Mexico via the Underground Railroad returned specifically for the Juneteenth observance.
As the holiday became more festive, public entertainment, family reunions, and other events became more prominent. In places such as Dallas, rodeos were the center of the celebration. Food was and is important in the celebrations, and an emphasis on barbecues is standard. All kinds of meats are cooked and shared. Some participants also make unique dishes, and in some locations, like Austin, there are cook-off contests. Wearing red and having red foods like watermelon, red soft drinks, and strawberry pie is also symbolic at the Juneteenth celebration. In some Texas localities, people donned plantation-style dress replete with red bandanas.
For reasons that are not very clear, the Juneteenth holiday lost its appeal throughout Texas during the 1950s and 1960s. The explanation frequently offered is that this period, encompassing the struggles of the civil rights movement, contrasted Page 188 | Top of Articleunfavorably with a holiday that harkened back to an era of black enslavement; Juneteenth was simply out of vogue and seen as an antiquated celebration. By the 1970s, however, there was renewed interest. In 1979, State Representative Al Edwards introduced a bill to the Texas legislature making June 19 an official state holiday. It was subsequently signed into law and has been recognized as such since 1980.
By the 1990s, as a result of Texans moving to other parts of the country and the general interest in reviving African American folkloric traditions, Juneteenth has been recognized and celebrated nationwide. There is even a Juneteenth international Web site that posts holiday events taking place around the world. From Dallas to Detroit, June 19 has captured the imagination and inspired African Americans to revisit their heritage in numerous ways.
Conner, Robert C., 2013, General Gordon Granger: The Savior of Chickamauga and the Man Behind “Juneteenth” (Philadelphia: Casemate); Hume, Janice, and Noah Arceneaux, 2008, “Public Memory, Cultural Legacy, and Press Coverage of the Juneteenth Revival,” Journalism History 34 (3): 155; Juneteenth Web site, http://www.juneteenth.com ; Murray, Julie, 2012, Juneteenth (Edina, Minn: ABDO Pub. Co.); Nelson, Vaunda Micheaux, and Drew Nelson, 2006, Juneteenth (Millbrook Press); Peppas, Lynn, 2011, Juneteenth (New York: Crabtree Pub. Co.); Wiggins, William H., Jr., 1990, Oh Freedom! Afro-American Emancipation Celebrations (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press).
Gale Document Number: GALE|CX7121400084