On June 19, 1865, Union troops took over Texas and freed the remaining slaves who had been denied freedom. On June 3, 1979, Texas became the first state to declare Juneteenth an official state holiday and since then 46 more states (including California, which officially approved recognition in 2003) now count Juneteenth as a state holiday or a day of observance.
We asked Brenda Stevenson, Nickoll Family Professor of History in the UCLA College, to share some thoughts on Juneteeth, its evolution and current iterations, and why acknowledging this date is an important part of the dialogue and push for change when it comes to racial and social justice in the United States. Stevenson is an internationally renowned scholar of race, slavery, gender, family and racial conflict.
We know that slavery in America persisted beyond the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 and even beyond the ratification of the 13th Amendment in December 1865. How did June 19, 1865, become so enduringly prominent to African American communities?
The importance of the date to African American communities has grown over time. Juneteenth was first celebrated along the Gulf Coast and primarily in Texas and adjacent areas. Its importance grew as Black people from these places moved out during periods of migration, particularly the Great Migration. Where Black Texas went, so too did Juneteenth. Black persons in other parts of the country also celebrated general emancipation, but on other dates. Many along the eastern and southeastern seaboard did so on Jan. 1, the date that the Emancipation Proclamation came into effect. It was, for example, on Jan. 1,1863, that mass celebrations occurred under the Emancipation Oak (now on the campus of Hampton University) in southern Virginia and in the St. Helena area of South Carolina. Many in those regions continued to celebrate and commemorate emancipation on that date for decades. A revival of the emphasis on Juneteenth began during the late Civil Rights/Black Power movements. It has grown in acknowledgement and prominence since that time to be a nationally recognized date of importance.
Where were the first Juneteenth celebrations held and what form did they take?
The first Juneteenth celebrations occurred in Texas and the Louisiana Gulf Coast areas that are adjacent to Galveston and east Texas. The first formal celebration purportedly took place in 1866, but there were much smaller family and community-style celebrations when Black people at various locations in this region received the news. The smaller celebrations included public prayer sessions, music, dance, storytelling, sharing specially prepared foods and generally enjoying being with family and friends. The larger, formal celebrations included parades, speeches, music, picnics with special foods. African Americans eventually raised money to purchase park land where these kinds of celebrations could take place unimpeded by public space segregation laws and imposed customs.
It feels more important than ever to recognize Juneteenth this year, thanks to a renewed attention to anti-racism and racial justice in our culture. As we do that, what would you hope people come to understand about the history of these celebrations?
Juneteenth is an opportunity for people nationally and globally to recognize the lingering legacy of Black slavery in the United States. Freed Black people had hoped for a freedom that meant equality and acceptance. African-descended people in this nation, along with allies, are still trying to realize that kind of citizenship.
Only four states don’t currently have some kind of recognition of Juneteenth. As a historian, what do you think it would mean to the country if Juneteenth were to become a federal holiday?
Juneteenth becoming a national holiday would reaffirm the essential ideal in this nation of freedom and equality for all. It will not, however, guarantee freedom and equality for everyone. There is much more work to be done before our society functionally embraces the nation’s founding principles.
Much of your work as a historian is centered around finding and telling the stories of individuals, especially women, who were enslaved in this country. Can we think of Juneteeth also an opportunity to remember those who never got to experience freedom?
Definitely. Juneteenth speaks powerfully to the reality that we, as a nation, have to continue to evolve democratically, humanely and morally. It is not just about Black inequality, but the inequality and marginality that many people and groups who do not fit into a particular racial, cultural, class, gender, sexuality, and citizenship box experience in our nation.
There are a lot of recommendations of great books and resources for those who seek to be allies to the cause of racial justice being shared these days. One of these is Ava DuVernay’s film “13th,” which is a searing and insightful commentary on the caveat built into the 13th Amendment that essentially allows slavery to continue for those convicted of a crime. How might Juneteeth reflections also help to highlight those who are caught in the current struggle by way of our system of policing and incarceration?
The criminal justice system in our country was founded on inequalities linked to a racial hierarchy. It is one of the fundamental national institutions that must be comprehensively changed to address this deep, foundational flaw. Still, it is only one of our essential systems linked to the inequalities alive and well in our society. It is a good place to start, but change cannot end there.