Juneteenth is a celebration of freedom – but a freedom delayed.
“I belong to myself now.” Harriet, freed woman, 1865
While many of us take the signing of the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation for granted as the moment that slavery ended in the United States, that’s only the official story. Juneteenth is a commemoration of the day, years later, when on June 19, 1865 thousands received the message from Union General Gordon Granger. He arrived in Galveston with more than 2,000 troops and issued an order officially enforcing the end of slavery. The spontaneous celebration that broke out is the basis for Juneteenth.
That’s right. Texas slaves were the last to learn of freedom.
As we are so painfully seeing right now, the promise of freedom continues to be delayed for Black people all over this country. It matters more now than ever that we examine our past, keep learning, and act.
Juneteenth has yet to become a national holiday, but almost all states and the district of Columbia recognize it as a state holiday. In 1980, Texas became the first to do so.
Celebrating Juneteenth is an opportunity to look at slavery from the shoes of slaves. It’s a chance to share this important milestone with our children and look at how it is linked to violence and racism right now.
Can you imagine 9/11 happening and there not being a recognition, a ritual, a moment where we step back and take an accounting of what happened on that day? Where we think about who it happened to and the trauma that it caused and how people have dealt with its wake, and how we’re still dealing with it? Can you imagine that not happening? Think about how that one day had this tremendous ripple effect — it changed how we did everything in this country. Now look at 250 years of slavery, and all that is bound up and connected in that. We have done almost nothing as a nation to deal with that. -Karlos Hill, professor of African and African-American studies at the University of Oklahoma and the author of Beyond the Rope: The Impact of Lynching on Black Culture and Memory.
- Learn more and talk with you kids about Juneteenth, the abolition of slavery for over 4 million people, and life after Juneteenth for former slaves. If you haven’t already, learn about Austin’s “Master Plan” to segregate the city in 1928. If you have any questions about why protestors chose to shut down I-35 on May 30, 2020, this is a good start.
- Celebrate! While the traditional community gathering, parades and barbecues are unfortunately not an option this year, that’s no reason to skip Juneteenth. Storytelling, picnics and music are an important part of the holiday. It is also traditional to have red food and drinks, which symbolize resilience. Learn more about celebration, food and building altars here and here.
- Decode the map. After emancipation, several Freedmen communities thrived in Travis County. This fascinating map shows the locations of several of these communities. Do you currently live in a former Freedmen community? Can you identify its boundaries and imagine what life might have been like in 1890? Some familiar place names may have a surprising origin. Learn more about life for Freedmen and what became of these thriving areas.
- Visit, virtually or IRL. Early Juneteen Celebrations were held in Grover Park. Do you know where that is today? Check out this very short video from the Austin History Center (and while you’re there, check out the other videos. All are under a minute!)
- Make this a day a call to action. Right here in Austin. Did you know that Austin Police Chief Brian Manley is under fire for departmental racism and sexism – and that several groups including The Austin Justice Coalition and Grassroots Advocacy are calling for his termination? Learn more from the Austin Monitor here. Learn more and support the work of nonprofit game-changers like Measure, E4Youth and Code2College.
Happy Juneteenth – may we always do better.