A Look Into Juneteenth: the Oldest Known Celebration of the End of Slavery

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A flag is waved on the celebration of Juneteenth on June 19, 2021, in Galveston Texas. (Getty Images)

As the world approaches Wednesday, June 19, many anticipate coming together to celebrate the annual Juneteenth holiday – a commemoration of the end of slavery, a significant historical lineage of the American Civil War.

January 1, 1863, saw the gathering of free African Americans in private homes and churches. They were waiting for one message. The declaration at the stroke of midnight to announce all enslaved people in the Confederate States to be free or emancipated.

Freedom for enslaved people of Texas would come much later, on June 19, 1865, when 250,000 slaves were freed from Texas, joining in total, 4 million liberated African Americans, cementing Lincoln’s victory in the American Civil War. Combining the terms “June” and “nineteenth,” the day was named as what we now know as “Juneteenth.”

The Reconstruction (1865-77) Period that followed Emancipation Day was characterized by faith, doubt, and hardships. Accessibility to education was essential for the 4 million illiterate freed African Americans. The solution to such a problem saw efforts by organizations, namely the American Missionary Association and the Freedmen’s Bureau, which set up Black colleges and universities throughout the States, fostering illumination and self-introspection. The African Methodist Episcopal Church provided religiosity and other spiritual forms of guidance. Ninety institutions of high education for African Americans were founded between 1861 and 1900; they were collectively named Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).

Free African Americans on Emancipation Day, June 19, 1900, in East 24th Street, Austin (Austin History Center)

The act sought to have “lifted the veil of ignorance” for Black communities entering a different socioeconomic division as paid workers, described Booker T. Washington, the founder of Tuskegee University. Washington understands “education as a means of maintaining racial hierarchy” and the importance of education as a tool to “realize our dreams.” Today, HBCUs persist to advocate awareness of racial inequity and diversify a past fixed framework of American education.

Juneteenth’s first anniversary in 1866 was attended by hundreds of men, women, and children in Houston, Texas. 1870 marked the official ratification of the 13th Amendment which prohibited slavery into legislation. The Emancipation Park was founded in Houston two years later, establishing features of distinct, red-colored foods, cultural films, and parades – traditions still followed by celebrators to this day. Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination in the 1968 Poor People’s March in Washington D.C. consolidated Juneteenth’s significance in the minds of the people.

In 2021, Biden’s signing of the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act finally came – though followed by waves of protests and fluctuations, exacerbated by the murder of George Floyd by a white Minneapolis police officer. The President recalls it as “one of the greatest honors” of his presidency to sign the commemoration into law. His reverence for Black liberation is shadowed by immense support from Congress, with only 14 voting against it.

Last week, US News reported the White House was “kicking things off early” on the South Lawn for Juneteenth activities. The first black vice president remarks his reverence and hopes for the 2024 celebrations: “A promise of freedom, liberty, and opportunity, not for some but for all. In many ways, the story of Juneteenth and of our nation is a story of our ongoing fight to realize that promise.”

Dr. Karida Brown, a sociology professor at Emory University, touches on celebrating Juneteenth for non-black communities. Brown emphasizes her perspective of collective experience in history, “It absolutely is your history. It absolutely is a part of your experience. … Isn’t this all of our history?” she exclaims. It is important to “Have that full human experience of seeing yourself in and through the eyes of others, even if that’s not your own lived experience,” she adds.  

Written by Julia Jiang

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