Celebrating Juneteenth: A Day of Remembrance

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Development Associate Erin Smith shares a reflection of and history lesson about Juneteenth.

On June 19, 1865, two years after President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, 1,800 Union soldiers arrived in Galveston Bay on the gulf coast of Texas, bringing the promise of freedom for more than 250,000 enslaved Black people in the state. African American communities have celebrated the day as Juneteenth in the century-plus since, but it wasn’t until 1980 when the state of Texas officially recognized this day as a holiday.

As a D.C.-area resident, I first heard of Juneteenth in elementary school – quite possibly in the form of a monologue from either of two particularly prolific Black filmmakers from the 90s, Spike Lee or John Singleton. My earliest recollections are of family gatherings in the form of barbecues or reunions, local parades or concerts just before July 4. Family gathering was and is essential to the spirit of celebration. During that two-week period, we would see relatives from multiple generations come together and share our family’s legacy through stories. As I got older and discovered more of the day’s historical roots, I wanted to understand the magnitude of this holiday’s impact on Black culture and civil liberties for Black Americans, and how Juneteenth would set the precedent for generations of activism and restorative justice measures for marginalized communities thereafter. 

Red, white and blue banner with a bursting 12-point star with a five-point star in the middle is the Juneteenth Flag
The Juneteenth Star (Wikimedia commons). Learn more about its symbolism from CNN.

Freedom Deferred

Despite more recent observances of Black freedom during the month of June, celebrations during the Civil War period often focused on commemorating the January 1, 1863, issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation or other localized emancipation dates. (For example, the Proclamation was preceded by theWashington, D.C., Compensated Emancipation Act of 1862, another incremental mandate leading toward the eventual abolition of slavery after Lincoln’s presidency.)Early Emancipation Celebrations took the form of church gatherings or midnight jubilees led by northern Black leaders including Frederick Douglass. However, the January 1 day of commemoration carried conflicts. The freedom that the Emancipation Proclamation granted on the day was far from universal, since the implementation of the order depended on Union military powers for enforcement in formerly Confederate-controlled states. Additionally, the proclamation only applied to Confederate states—to areas in rebellion against the United States. Its radical yet limited scope emboldened Black liberation in Confederate states while preserving the rights of those who enslaved others outside of rebelling areas at that time.

While the Union accepted the surrender of the Confederate armies in 1865, enforcement of the Emancipation Proclamation depended on the advance of the U.S. Army across rebel territories. This can be attributed to the aftermath of the capture of New Orleans in 1862, where many slaveholders migrated further west, forcing those they enslaved to trek out of the U.S. Army’s protection. U.S. soldiers had to cross to the westernmost parts of remaining rebel territory in Texas after the surrender of Confederate general Robert E. Lee. Until significant Union troops were present in June 1865 to enforce the Emancipation Proclamation, old practices continued. Once this did occur in Texas, and with the aid of the Freedmen’s Bureau, up to an estimated 250,000 newly emancipated Black people were offered food, shelter and other practical aid in their transition from slavery to freedom. It’s important to note that impoverished white people also saw benefits.

A Legacy of Radical Joy

The story of June 19 is one of fortitude, resilience and hope during one of the most challenging transitions of the post-Civil War Reconstruction era. In some respects, it is an anniversary of the day freedom was finally brought to a region stricken with the violence of chattel slavery–an injustice that, with the lack of U.S. soldiers in Texas, continued two and a half more years after the Emancipation Proclamation. From another perspective, Juneteenth is the reflection of the horrific miscarriage of justice in that aftermath and commemorating the liberation of these Black people. It is perhaps fitting that Texas, the state that held people in bondage and defied the Emancipation Proclamation the longest, became the first to recognize Juneteenth as an official holiday.

The legacy of June 19, 1865, also holds cultural significance with modern-day concepts and practices, such as joy activism, oral history preservation and progressivism. As the histories of Black America and other marginalized communities become more commonly taught, we have a chance to forge an identity as a nation rooted in inclusive storytelling, honoring those that resisted racist powers and celebrating the triumphs in the journey to a freer country for all.

In the words of Frederick Douglass, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will." We must continue to share the story to preserve the legacy of Juneteenth and the wisdom of our elders. This year, as Juneteenth becomes a federally recognized holiday, we remember those impacted by slavery and the radical and courageous people who fought for and found their own freedom.

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Erin Smith is a development officer for Ford’s Theatre and native to the Washington, D.C. area.