Does it strike you as weird that there’s no official holiday celebrating the emancipation of slaves? The atrocity that was 400 years of slavery is ingrained in the heart of every American. But, a holiday centered on freedom, connectedness, and honoring the thousands who died in bondage could be a celebration of forwarding progress.
Most people have never heard of Freedom Day. Traditionally celebrated on the 19th of June — also called Juneteenth and Emancipation Day — the unofficial holiday marks the moment in 1865 the last freed state in the Confederacy, Texas, learned that slaves had been emancipated. For those doing the math, that’s two and a half years after Lincoln signed the proclamation.
What was the hold-up? Well, a few things. One, a proclamation is not federal law. The country was still divided by war and slaveholders were not eager to give up free labor. The proclamation only freed slaves that were lucky enough to live in Confederate states the Union had conquered. Texas, being Texas, wasn’t going to rejoin the Union without a fight. Major General Gordon Granger, and his 1,800 troops, kicked-ass and got the last holdout to get back in line. Black Texans were free. Kind of.
“The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, 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. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.” —General Orders, Number 3; Headquarters District of Texas, Galveston, June 19, 1865
Though I was raised in the North, my family is from the South. All my grandparents were raised there until the great Mississippi migration, which saw thousands of disenfranchised Black Americans move up North. Many, like my ancestors, settled in Chicago, where a lot of southern lifestyles including Baptists churches, the phrases ma’am and sir, as well as soul food still thrive within the community.
But even though I attended African dance classes and festivals, I didn’t learn about Juneteenth until I was in college. I wouldn’t celebrate the holiday until this year. My girlfriends and I spent the Sunday together. We fried chicken, and made mac and cheese and collard greens. We reminisced about our families and ancestors. While we had fun, we were kind of bummed there were no big local celebrations. We were hoping to vibe in family cookout vibe with the LA community.
Opal Lee, a 91-year-old woman, is working to make Juneteenth a national holiday. She began by trying to walk to Washington D.C. from Fort Worth, TX in 2016 when Obama was still in office. At her advanced age, her team decided that it would be healthier for her to travel to cities that invited her. The goal was to inform them of the rich history of the celebration. Hopefully, more people would join the fight.
Turns out, American citizens were very interested in this lost holiday. When Lee arrived in a new location, she would walk two and a half miles to symbolize the time Blacks in Texas didn’t know they were free. Eventually, Lee did make it to DC. But no politician in Washington would walk with her.
Undeterred, she continued to rally people together even after 45 was elected. Forty-five states recognize Juneteenth as a special day, but Opal isn’t satisfied. She shouldn’t be. The freeing of slaves was a huge moral victory for the United States. Despite the centuries of oppression the descendants of slaves have faced and continue to face, freedom was still a major win.
The weight of this win can be seen in the ways Juneteenth was celebrated in the nineteenth century. In public parks, Blacks dressed in their best clothes, they decorated buggies and paraded around parks. In honor of the ancestors who died in bondage, red punch symbolizing blood was served. They would BBQ and dance until the late hours.
It should be noted that there was a lot of backlash to this celebration. First, just because some president that no one in your area voted for, who lives thousands of miles away, says slaves are free does not mean every slave walked away from their oppressor that day. Certainly, it did not mean that the oppressor began to treat their workers like human beings. Even twenty years after the emancipation of slavery, local governments led by all white politicians would segregate parks and ban parties to deter gatherings.
I am proud to come from slaves. My people are survivors. They raised a family, found love, and bore fruit out of salted Earth. We still thrive on top of that salted soil. One way to honor the sacrifice of the enslaved and for every freedman who continues to fight for true freedom is to celebrate the day we learned we were all free according to law.
In an interview with Shondaland’s Dianca London Plotts, Lee said, “…slaves did not free themselves. It took abolitionists and Quakers and all kinds of folks to help and lobby to get the slaves freed. We need to acknowledge that and we need to unify and help people to come to the realization that working together is a hell of a lot better than trying to do things by yourself. I truly believe that we can do so much more together rather than apart.”