History is Present People In Perspective

Juneteenth and the Evolution of Commemoration

A historical illustration of an African American family celebrating the Juneteenth holiday

Today is Juneteenth and #JUNETEENTH is trending on Twitter. The path that Juneteenth has taken from its origin in Galveston, Texas in 1865 to trending topic in 2017 is a fascinating example of how memory and commemoration evolve with the times. To understand, we look to Mitch Kachun’s essay “Celebrating Freedom: Juneteenth and the Emancipation Festival Tradition,“ in Remixing the Civil War.

Like early Memorial and Decoration Days, African American celebrations of emancipation began at the end of the Civil War. Dozens of local variations—based on the different ways that people encountered freedom in different places—arose and continued well into the twentieth century. Many northern black people sustained an abolitionist tradition of commemorating August 1st, the anniversary of the 1834 abolition of slavery in the British empire. Some freedpeople in Virginia maintained celebrations on April 9, the date of General Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. Residents of east Tennessee noted August 8, the date that future President Andrew Johnson freed his personal slaves in 1863 (a celebration acknowledged by that state in 2007). In Texas, African Americans celebrated June 19th—Juneteenth—to mark the day in 1865 that United States General Gordon Granger announced that “in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free.” More broadly, Americans in the post-war years looked to the January 1 anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation to commemorate freedom. This proliferation of regional observances in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries contributed—along with the indifference of the Federal government—to the failure to establish a single national observance of emancipation.

Major Richard R. Wright, Sr., formerly enslaved in Georgia, made headway in the 1940s in promoting a National Freedom Day holiday on February 1, marking the day that President Lincoln signed the congressional Joint Resolution that led to the 13th Amendment. Though formally recognized by Congress in 1948, the National Freedom Day observances failed to gain traction.

Juneteenth’s emergence from Texas began with black migration to the Midwest and the west in the Gilded Age. In the modern era, national interest in Juneteenth reappeared during the 1968 Poor People’s March on Washington and in 1980, the state of Texas vaulted Juneteenth into the mainstream by making it an official state holiday. Grassroots activists and historians promoted Juneteenth in the 1990s as a way of re-centering the story of emancipation from policymakers in Washington, D.C., to enslaved African Americans in the heart of the former Confederacy. It not only proved useful to the ongoing Civil Rights movement, but also made for a great party. Vox writer Phil Edwards notes, “…parties like the Juneteenth Blues Spectacular showed up in popular culture, recasting the holiday as an opportunity to celebrate modern black culture.” By the early 2000s, calls for formal Juneteenth observances came from activists, entertainers, educators, and politicians across the country. A June 18, 2009 Congressional resolution that “apologizes to African-Americans on behalf of the people of the United States, for wrongs committed against them and their ancestors who suffered under slavery and Jim Crow laws,” further cemented the prominence of the holiday in American consciousness. Indeed, today’s Twitter posts effectively blend a celebration of emancipation with a recognition that we continue to struggle with the legacy of slavery and segregation.

The memory and public commemoration of emancipation, as with all historical observances, continues to change and accumulate new meaning for every generation, confirming that we are all part of a living and evolving history.