Featured Essay - Emancipation and the Meaning of Juneteenth

Juneteenth is part of more than two centuries of African American freedom celebrations. In the years between Thomas Jefferson's Declaration of Independence and Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, slaves and free blacks and their secular and religious black leaders established a tradition of festivals not only celebrating but also critically examining slaves' progress toward freedom and the abilities of African Americans both to govern themselves and to participate in national politics. Such festivals reinforced racial memory and helped develop racial pride through the remembrance of contributions made by African Americans to the development of the United States. Until the emancipation of all blacks, the festivals were often occasions of sober reflection on the meaning of liberty in America and outright protests against the wrongs of slavery, but also saluted black freedom with parades, celebratory orations, and food.

In the colonial era, Negro Election Day, Pinkster, and Jon Kannoe were times when blacks transformed white rituals to their own purposes. In 1808 leading black clerics including Absalom Jones and Peter Williams Jr. delivered orations commemorating the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade. Blacks in northern cities held regular celebrations to honor black history. In New York, 5 July became the day to celebrate the end of slavery in the state in 1827. Many antebellum free blacks recognized 1 August 1834 (when slavery ended in the British Empire) as a day of emancipation. Even after the Civil War, 1 August remained entrenched as a celebration day throughout the nation, but was Americanized by including celebrations of the federal amendments ending slavery and giving black males the vote. When America became racially segregated at the end of the nineteenth century, such "freedom day" festivals were publicly repressed and celebrations stopped being held in some parts of the country. However emancipation days continued to be celebrated by many southern blacks well into the early twentieth century. The emergence of Juneteenth as a national holiday since the 1930s marks a revival of African Americans honoring the significant contributions they and their ancestors have made to the freedoms of our nation.

Juneteenth, the celebration day marking the proclamation of freedom for enslaved blacks in the western states, has become the most popular festival honoring both that wonderful moment and the richness of black culture. The celebration grew out of festivities in Texas commemorating an order issued by the Union General Gordon Granger in Galveston, Texas, on 19 June 1865 pronouncing the freedom of enslaved blacks in his areas of operation and informing the freed people that they now had full rights as American citizens. Other emancipation celebrations coalesced around similar episodes, such as 9 May 1862, when General David Hunter, commander of the Union Army in the South, issued a decree that freed all enslaved people in South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, and 1 January 1863, when Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation went into effect. Since Texans first began to celebrate Juneteenth, its significance has spread across the nation. In 1936 Juneteenth was made part of the Texas State Centennial celebration. By the 1980s, Juneteenth festivals were taking place in California and throughout the Midwest and Upper South. Participants in Juneteenth festivals honor the day by looking back at black history, staging parades and pageants, and hosting barbecues, music concerts, and athletic events.

While many participants use the day to celebrate with friends, families, and community members, engaging in sports and other public events, Juneteenth can also be used for more serious purposes. Like Martin Luther King Jr. Day today and emancipation days celebrated before the end of the Civil War, Juneteenth is a time when all Americans can reflect on freedom and civil rights and African Americans' deliverance from slavery, and can use the day to comment publicly on the state of those issues in our nation. A well-known occasion when Juneteenth was used to make a political statement is the Poor People's March of 1968. Starting in late April, just weeks after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., marchers borrowed the widely recognized Juneteenth image of a mule-drawn wagon to deliver their message throughout the South. Led by a mule, Ralph Abernathy, one of Dr. King's closest assistants, conducted the march, stopping at the Lorraine Hotel, where King was gunned down, before moving on through Mississippi and the south. Along the way the procession stopped in various places to memorialize slain Civil Rights workers. After visits to the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, and to other locations made sacred during the struggle for civil rights, the parade finally arrived in Washington, D.C., in mid-May where it ended at Resurrection City, an encampment of impoverished Americans. After some bitter infighting over planning, some 50,000 participants enjoyed an enormous Juneteenth ceremony with speeches by national leaders and songs by Eartha Kitt. As more and more people across the country have come to celebrate Juneteenth, its scope and significance have grown, keeping alive the memory of emancipation for African Americans and fostering an understanding of the price and costs of freedom for all Americans.

For further reading on this topic see Mitch Kachun, Festivals of Freedom: Memory and Meaning in African American Emancipation Celebrations, 1808–1915 (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2003); William H. Wiggins Jr., O Freedom! African American Emancipation Celebrations (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1987); and William H. Wiggins and Douglas DeNatale, Eds. Jubilation! African American Celebrations in the Southeast (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1993).

Graham Russell Gao Hodges is the George Dorland Langdon Jr. Professor of History at Colgate University. He is a scholarly advisor for the Oxford African American Studies Center and is an Editor of both the Encyclopedia of African American History, 1619–1895 (Oxford, 2006) and the Encyclopedia of African American History, 1896 to the Present (Oxford, forthcoming). He has written extensively on black colonial and early national history, including the landmark work, Root and Branch: African Americans in New York and East Jersey, 1613–1863 (1999).