On June 18, 1865, Union Army General Gordon Granger and 2,000 troops, many of whom were black, arrived at Galveston Island to occupy the state of Texas after the last army of white supremacist army of the Confederacy surrendered.
The black soldiers started spreading the word to nearby enslaved Africans that something big was going to happen and they should meet the next morning at the balcony of the Ashton Villa.
The next day, on June 19, Granger read the “General Order No. 3,” announcing the total emancipation of those held as slaves:
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.
And that’s how Juneteenth was born.
Although the holiday wasn’t known to many white people, The Root managed to contact 175-year-old Lee Malone, who was instrumental in organizing the very first Juneteenth celebration. Malone agreed to sit down with us and explain the origin and traditions of Juneteenth.
The Root: Hello Mr. Malone. First of all, I would like to say that it’s a pleasure to meet you.
Lee Malone: The pleasure is all mine, Mr. Thought. I loved your first album, Do You Want More. Where is Questlove? Hey, you wanna hear me freestyle?
TR: I’m sorry. I think you have us confused with The Roots. They’re a hip-hop band. We’re a news outlet. We wanted to talk to you about Juneteenth.
LM: First of all, you’re saying it wrong. It’s pronounced Jū-nuh-teenth. We used to call it “June 19th” but we started saying it really fast. You know you have to speak in secret codes around white people or they’ll steal your idea and rebrand it as “Emancipation Granting Day” or some shit like that. You know how they do.
TR: So you remember that day?
LM: Nigga what? Do you remember when you won a Grammy? Well, this was just like that. But instead of going down the red carpet, imagine the afterparty was freedom. Hell yeah. I remember it was it like yesterday.
TR: Again, I am not a member of The Roots. I’m with a media company called The Root.
LM: Ohhh, you’re from the movie Roots. That movie was some bullshit. It wasn’t even realistic. Except for the guy who played Kunta Kinte. Was that you?
TR: No, sir. Let’s move on. Tell me how you felt when you heard the news.
LM: Well the first thing I thought was: “Where are my reparations?” You mean we’ve been free for two years and no one told us? I’m finna go whip Massa’s ass.” But then some of my homeboys calmed me down and told me my daughter was crying.
TR: Tears of joy?
LM: No, she was crying because she was upset. She didn’t know what “emancipation” meant. All she knew was that was when white folks use big words, bad shit is usually about to happen. But then she smelled the barbecue and she knew it wasn’t bad.
TR: You had a cookout?
LM: That was my job. How else were we going to eat?
TR: Wait...Did you organize it?
LM: Yep. that was me. We used the smoldering embers from the plantation we set on fire and a few women from the Smith plantation made some potato salad. Best potato salad I ever had, too. All that jumping up and down and hugging makes a man hungry, so I had to organize a cookout.
TR: Is that where the tradition came from? It’s nice to know that the cultural heritage of cookouts extends back to the day of our freedom.
LM: Nigga what? Nah bruh. We. Were. Enslaved! Where the hell do you think we cooked our food? In a convection oven near the dining room of the slave quarters? But the first Juneteenth celebration was the first time we ever had really good food.
We were used to eating gizzards and chicken livers but we decided to take our back pay in chicken so I grilled up some chicken and thought: I wonder how these wings would taste? We raided Massa’s house and couldn’t find any seasonings, which was weird. Anyway, I decided to use a couple of lemons and some peppers, which is the only thing I could find. Turned out pretty good!
TR: So what made you think that Juneteenth should be celebrated?
LM: Well, I thought it should be celebrated like the Fourth of July. Or as we called it: Freedom Day. That’s the day we modeled our celebration after.
TR: I think you mean Independence Day? That’s a good idea. After all, it was the first time that everyone in America was truly free.
LM: Independence Day? Nah, we called it Freedom Day because it was the one day white people would leave us alone. Back in my day, we would gather around the gizzard grill and listen to the and sing songs of freedom. That’s how we came up with the Negro National Anthem.
TR: “Lift Every Voice and Sing” is that old?
LM: No, that’s new. The original Negro National Anthem came from the first Juneteenth. I listen to it on that YouTube thing sometimes. Here it is.
TR: Wow. So how do you celebrate Juneteenth now?
LM: There is no correct way to celebrate. Some people barbecue. Some people shoot fireworks. Some people grab a machete and go looking for their reparations paycheck (OK, that one is just a personal tradition).
That’s the point of freedom. You get to be free.
But the best way to get in the Juneteenth spirit is to repeat my name to anyone who isn’t black
TR: Why is that?
LM: Because my slave name was actually “Cleotis Jebediah McLintock.” But as soon as I threw off the shackles of slavery, I changed it to something I’ve always wanted to tell white people.
TR: Lee Malone.
LM: Exactly. OK, my man. Tell QuestLove and Chicken George I said “Hey.” And tell Kizzy to call a nigga sometimes.
Where’s my machete?