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Juneteenth: The Holiday Honoring the Emancipation of Formerly Enslaved Black Americans

Juneteenth: The Holiday Honoring the Emancipation of Formerly Enslaved Black Americans

For generations, Black Americans have recognized the end of one of the darkest chapters in U.S. history with joy, in the form of parades, festivals, entertainment, and family gatherings known as Juneteenth. It was only after the murder of George Floyd in May 2020 that Juneteenth started to gain national attention. The racial reckoning helped set the stage for Juneteenth to become the first new federal holiday since 1983, when Martin Luther King Jr. Day was created.

Juneteenth, or Freedom Day, is celebrated every June 19 to acknowledge the day in 1865 on which Union soldiers arriving in Texas announced that the Civil War was over and slavery had been abolished. Keep in mind this was two and a half years after Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation declared slaves held in Confederate states free and two months after his assassination.

When I was growing up in Kansas City, we celebrated Juneteenth every year. I distinctly remember attending parades and community gatherings. Even at school, there was some activity reflecting on the day. Honestly though, as a kid, I didn’t understand the totality of what Juneteenth was and what exactly we were celebrating. I wasn’t aware of the history. During the racial reckoning, it became evident just how many people, especially Black people, were not aware of what Juneteenth meant or had not even heard of it.

The truth is, Juneteenth is an unusual day. It is a day we now celebrate as a nation, the day that Black Texans officially received some great news two years after the fact. We have actually taken an unfortunate period in history and turned it into a day of celebration. I believe it’s okay to feel both grief and gratitude in connection with this day.

Slavery was horrific. But when we think about what emancipation meant in 1865, we realize it came with its own distinctive cruelties. Formerly enslaved Texans were forced to rebuild their lives from less than scratch; choose new names; attempt to reunite with stolen partners, children, and family. They faced daily threats because of the new Black codes that severely restricted their freedom — their freedom to work, but also their freedom to be unemployed if they wanted to be or even to stand in one place for too long.

Newly emancipated Black Texans still suffered violence from the Ku Klux Klan and local officials. These groups terrorized free Black people, burned churches and homes, and intimidated those who sought work. The Equal Justice Initiative has tried gaining an accurate count of how many Black people were murdered, reporting that more than 2,000 Black women, men, and children were victims of racial terrorist lynchings during Reconstruction, which lasted from 1865 to 1877.

While most Americans celebrate Independence Day on July 4th, more and more Black Americans have chosen not to. Juneteenth has become the flip side of the Independence Day coin — the Black alternative, if you will. It also reflects a deeper issue: the continued existence of two histories, Black and white, separate and unequal.

On July 4, 1852, Frederick Douglass gave voice to that fundamental divide in a speech. “The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me,” he said. “This Fourth of July is yours, not mine.”

When I hear people promoting the celebration of Juneteenth and not Independence Day because it’s “our day,” Douglass’ quote comes to life. That mindset, in my opinion, is dangerous and can create an even bigger divide. We have to be careful not to diminish the fundamental significance of Juneteenth. The day should be recognized for what it is: pride in the symbolic end of centuries of racial slavery — a crime against humanity. As meaningful as Independence Day is itself, Juneteenth completes the circle, reaffirming “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” as the rights of all, not just of some.

Two truths can exist at the same time. We can acknowledge both without minimizing what Black Americans have been through. By celebrating, we are not forgetting. By creating joy, we are actually planting ourselves in resilience and continuing to push toward all that our ancestors weren’t given the opportunity to do. We have responsibility now for how this narrative goes forward, and it can be one of strength.

We can acknowledge Juneteenth, as well as other events in history, as being indicative of systemic racism. Yet, our celebrations should focus on the joy of community, family, and freedom. I also believe that our celebrations should be used as a platform for knowledge and education. This will help ensure that we are never left out or the last to know again. That is, this helps us promote the importance of having a seat, and more importantly a voice, at the table before critical decisions are made, to avoid suffering after the fact.

Learn more about the history of Juneteenth and how you can celebrate here.

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