On the eve of January 1, 1863, black people all over the United States gathered quietly in churches to usher in a new dawn. At the stroke of midnight, the Emancipation Proclamation became effective to end an era of oppression.
But this newfound freedom was not available to everyone.
The Emancipation Proclamation was not recognized in the Confederate state of Texas until June 19, 1865, almost 2.5 years after slavery had been abolished in the United States. At that time, approximately 2,000 Union troops led by General Gordon Granger announced that enslaved Black people in Texas were freed by executive decree. Formerly enslaved people celebrated this date in 1865 and every year thereafter. Now 156 years later, the tradition continues. This date was memorialized as Juneteenth, a date of celebration and remembrance in the African American community. As Black families migrated throughout the country in search of a better life, Juneteenth became recognized in celebrations in every state. However, the tradition remained strongest with the Black families and communities in Texas.
What Juneteenth means to me
I have celebrated Juneteenth for as long as I can remember. It's definitely a celebration of our connectedness as a community, but it is also a somber reminder of struggle.
As a child, I was very close to my grandparents. We would often drive just a few short miles to visit my grandmother's family church home and older relatives in the forested area where she grew up. After she passed away and I started researching our family history, I learned that we were visiting the very land on which her grandfather was enslaved. Seeing the records that correspond to my grandmother's stories heightened my awareness and connection to the importance of Juneteenth. It also led to an amazing realization: my grandmother, the woman who had such a strong hand in raising me, was raised by my formerly enslaved ancestors. Slavery wasn't so long ago after all. That provided context to the importance of Juneteenth celebrations and knowing our history.
If Juneteenth is new to you, here are a few things to help you learn more:
The Juneteenth flag was developed in 1997 by Ben Haith of the National Juneteenth Celebration Foundation. Its colors are red, white, and blue to draw a connection with the American flag. However, Juneteenth celebrations have been taking place long before the flag was created, so many of us aren't even aware that there is a flag. My experience with Juneteenth has been represented by flags with red, black, and green, which are colors that represent black liberation worldwide. Regardless of the flag at a Juneteenth event, and even if there is no flag, the meaning of the event is special and treasured.
How Juneteenth is celebrated
In the rural Northeast Texas town of Clarksville where I grew up, we celebrate Juneteenth as a community. We all understood the meaning of the day and our role as the legacy of our ancestors. Every year, there are block parties, celebrations at our neighborhood parks, and church programs. There are also parades, family reunions, civic programs, proclamations, and a wide variety of other ways to commemorate the day throughout the state. Regardless of the setting, Juneteenth is typically celebrated with music, soul food, fond memories of generations past, and stories of the strength and resilience of our ancestors. The occasion has aspects that are both jubilant and solemn, but always results in an appreciation for how far we've come and how far we will go.
How I think of it
Juneteenth is a time for us all to reflect on our journey. It's a time to show appreciation for those who endured so much so that we can have greater opportunities today, and it's a time for renewed focus on the road ahead.