What Is Juneteenth?

100 Amazing Facts About the Negro: Learn about the most popular annual celebration of black emancipation.

Official Juneteenth Committee, Austin, Texas, June 19, 1900 (courtesy of Austin History Center, Austin Public Library)
Official Juneteenth Committee, Austin, Texas, June 19, 1900 (courtesy of Austin History Center, Austin Public Library)

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No one in the post-Civil War generation could deny that something fundamental had changed as a result of Lincoln’s war measure, but dwelling on it was a separate matter, David Blight explains. Among those in the ‘It’s time to move on’ camp were Episcopal priest and scholar Alexander Crummell, who, in a May 1885 address to the graduates of Storer College, said, “What I would fain have you guard against is not the memory of slavery, but the constant recollection of it, as the commanding thought of a new people.” On the other side was Douglass, who insisted on lighting a perpetual flame to “the causes, the incidents, and the results of the late rebellion.” After all, he liked to say, the legacy of black people in America could “be traced like that of a wounded man through a crowd by the blood.”

Hard as Douglass tried to make emancipation matter every day, Jan. 1 continued to be exalted — and increasingly weighed down by the betrayal of Reconstruction. (As detailed in last week’s column, the Supreme Court’s gift to the 20th anniversary of emancipation was striking down the Civil Rights Act of 1875.) W.E.B. Du Bois used this to biting effect in his Swiftian short story, “A Mild Suggestion” (1912), in which he had his black main character provide a final solution to Jim Crow America’s obsession with racial purity: On the next Jan. 1 (“for historical reasons” it would “probably be best,” he explained), all blacks should either be invited to dine with whites and poisoned or gathered in large assemblies to be stabbed and shot. “The next morning there would be ten million funerals,” Du Bois’ protagonist predicted, “and therefore no Negro problem.”

Juneteenth Endures

While national black leaders continued to debate the importance of remembering other milestone anniversaries, the freed people of Texas went about the business of celebrating their local version of Emancipation Day. For them, Juneteenth was, from its earliest incarnations, as Hayes Turner and others have recorded, a past that was “usable” as an occasion for gathering lost family members, measuring progress against freedom and inculcating rising generations with the values of self-improvement and racial uplift. This was accomplished through readings of the Emancipation Proclamation, religious sermons and spirituals, the preservation of slave food delicacies (always at the center: the almighty barbecue pit), as well as the incorporation of new games and traditions, from baseball to rodeos and, later, stock car races and overhead flights.

Like a boxer sparring with his rival, year after year Juneteenth was strengthened by the contest its committee members had to wage against the Jim Crow faithful of Texas, who, in the years following Reconstruction, rallied around their version of history in an effort to glorify (and whitewash) past cruelties and defeats. When whites forbade blacks from using their public spaces, black people gathered near rivers and lakes and eventually raised enough money to buy their own celebration sites, among them Emancipation Park in Houston and Booker T. Washington Park in Mexia.

When white leaders like Judge Lewis Fisher of Galveston likened the black freedman (“Rastus,” he called him) to “a prairie colt turned into a feed horse [to eat] ignorantly of everything,” Juneteenth celebrants dressed in their finest clothes, however poor, trumpeting the universal concerns of citizenship and liberty, with hero-speakers from the Reconstruction era and symbols like the Goddess of Liberty on floats and in living tableaux. And when Houston refused to close its banks on Memorial Day in 1919 (only to do so four days later on Jefferson Davis Day, honoring the former Confederate president), Juneteenth celebrants still did their own remembering, in Hayes Turner’s words, to project “identification with American ideals” in “a potent life-giving event … a joyful retort to messages of overt racism … a public counter-demonstration to displays of Confederate glorification and a counter-memory to the valorization of the Lost Cause.”

Strengthening the holiday’s chances at survival was its move across state lines — one person, one family, one carload or train ticket at a time. As Isabel Wilkerson writes in her brilliant book, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, “The people from Texas took Juneteenth Day to Los Angeles, Oakland, Seattle, and other places they went.” As it spread, the observance was also changing. This was especially true in the 1920s, Turner explains, with the Consumer Age infiltrating black society with advertisements for fancier Juneteenth getups and more elaborate displays of pomp and circumstance.

This did not mean that Juneteenth’s advances remained unbroken, however. Despite local committees’ best efforts, with each new slight, with each new segregation law, with each new textbook whitewashing and brutal lynching in the South, African Americans felt increasingly disconnected from their history, so that by the time World War II shook the nation, they could no longer faithfully celebrate freedom in a land that still rendered them second-class citizens worthy of dying for their country but not worthy of being honored or treated equally for it. Hence, the wartime Double V campaign.

It is possible that Juneteenth would have vanished from the calendar (at least outside of Texas) had it not been for another remarkable turn of events during the same civil rights movement that had exposed many of the country’s shortcomings about race relations. Actually, it occurred at the tail end of the movement, two months after its most prominent leader had been shot down.