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Juneteenth!

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Juneteenth–also known as Freedom Day, Jubilee Day, and Emancipation Day–is now a formal holiday nationwide, celebrating the emancipation of people formally enslaved in the United States. It’s been a long time comin’.

The holiday originated in Galveston, Texas, but is now annually celebrated on June 19 across the country, with–at last–official recognition. It commemorates the anniversary of June 19, 1865, in Texas, when Union Army General Gordon Granger, accompanied by 2000 Union troops, proclaimed freedom from slavery. This was well over two years after Abraham Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation and it was over two months after Robert E. Lee formally surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox. (Enforcement of the proclamation and the news generally depended on the advance of Union troops.)

Texas was the most remote of the states where enslavement was still practiced; planters and other slaveholders who had migrated there from eastern states to escape Civil War fighting brought many enslaved people with them, increasing the slave population in the state so much so that by 1865, there were an estimated 250,000 enslaved persons in Texas, in fact an expansion of the institution of slavery. Furthermore, the state had a low presence of Union troops as the Civil War ended, so enforcement there was slow and inconsistent.

Even after the Emancipation Proclamation declared an end to the institution of slavery in the Confederate states, it remained legal and practiced in two Union border states—Delaware and Kentucky–until the end of 1865, when the 13th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified abolishing chattel slavery nationwide. In addition, Native American territories that had sided with the Confederacy, namely the Choctaw, were the last to release enslaved people, in 1866. Yet it remained a case-by-case snails’ progress, because the freedom of previously enslaved people in Texas was given final legal status only by a series of Texas supreme court decisions as late as 1874.

Celebrations, first involving church community gatherings in Texas, spread across the south and became food festivals over the years, while attempting to avoid the commercialization usually attendant on national holidays. Juneteenth is also celebrated by the Mascogo people, descendants of the Black Seminole tribe who had escaped from US slavery in 1852, settling in Coahuila, Mexico.

Freedmen in Texas organized the first of what would become the annual local celebration of Jubilee Day–and I do mean FreedMEN, because women were not yet enfranchised or in any way empowered. The Freedmen’s Bureaus were sometimes regarded as controversial: were they collaborating with the institution of white supremacy, or were they actually working for progress for the Black community? In any event, they often held political rallies to give voting instructions to newly freed men. Yet in many cities in Texas, Black people were barred (by Democrats) from using public parks for assemblies and voter education. So across parts of Texas, Freedmen pooled their funds to purchase land on which to assemble, rally, organize, and hold Juneteenth celebrations.

In her new book, On Juneteenth, Annette Gordon-Reed, also author of the Pulitzer Prize winning book The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family, mixes memory, as in her own childhood, with objective history as in the pre-slavery presence of Black folk in Texas: she’s from Texas–with all the ironies that implies. She points out waves of attempts by the Black community to organize in Texas and the manner in which the very names of places were changed to circumvent that—e.g., Booker T. Washington Park, a largely Black community park, was taken over by white people and became just Washington Park, so that one couldn’t know whether it was named for George or Booker T.

In fact, that was just the small beginning of the backlash. Texas and all former Confederate states passed new constitutions or amendments disenfranchising Black people, solidifying The Black Codes and Jim Crow laws, and condoning violence by the KKK. Waves of revenge punishments–lynchings, burnings, and other atrocities–followed in the wake of the first Jubilee celebrations. Texas, which had been variously claimed by five countries: France, Spain, Mexico, and the United States of America, as well as by the Confederacy during the Civil War, was right up there denying Black progress. From 1836 to 1845, it had its own history as a separate, independent nation, the Republic of Texas, which boasted its own declaration of independence—largely stolen from Jefferson’s but with the language of equality conveniently deleted.

Nonetheless, celebrations spread, and from 1940 through 1970, in the second wave of the Great Migration, more than 5 million Black people left Texas, Louisiana, and elsewhere in the south, for the north and the west coast, bringing Juneteenth Day with them. In 1996, Barbara Rose Collins (D.MI.) was the first to sponsor legislation recognizing Juneteenth Independence Day in the U.S. House of Representatives. Last week, the Senate actually voted unanimously in favor of the day as a national holiday (!); not surprisingly, the current House was strongly in favor, and President Biden proudly signed it into law on June 17, 2021. Hallelujah!

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