On Saturday in southern Los Angeles, hundreds of artists and community members assembled for a festival, many of them dressed in traditional African clothing and selling handmade jewelry or original paintings. In Buffalo, N.Y., residents enjoyed African and Caribbean food in the city’s MLK Park. In Boston’s Franklin Park, brothers of the African American fraternity Omega Psi Phi gave a dance performance and U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren visited with constituents. Meanwhile, in the gardens of the University of Arkansas campus, visitors enjoyed jazz, R&B, and gospel performances while medical providers gave free screenings to community members.
These eclectic events were all early celebrations of “Juneteenth,” a holiday that marks the liberation of the last slaves in the U.S. on June 19, 1865. It was on that day that U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger ordered the release of the 250,000 slaves still held in captivity in the state of Texas, one month after the end of the Civil War and more than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed into law.
Beginning on June 19, 1866, members of the African American community marked the anniversary of their liberation with food, festivities, and religious worship. The earliest versions of Juneteenth included readings of the Emancipation Proclamation, religious sermons, the singing of spirituals, and feasts of traditional soul food. The annual celebration died down in the early 1900s and the Depression era but was revived during the civil rights movement. In 1979, Texas made Juneteenth an official holiday; today, 41 states recognize it as a state holiday. Currently, the National Juneteenth Observation Foundation is working to make Juneteenth a federal holiday.
Contemporary Juneteenth celebrations combine cultural festivities with the chance to speak out on social justice issues, from human trafficking to police brutality. It’s also “an opportunity to reflect on who we are as a country today and assess where we might be in friction with our values,” Jeremy C. Hunt, an active duty U.S. Army officer, wrote recently in an op-ed for Fox News.
According to Henry Louis Gates, Jr., a Harvard professor and the director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at the university, “by choosing to celebrate the last place in the South that freedom touched … we remember the shining promise of emancipation, along with the bloody path America took by delaying it.”
[Above: 2015 Juneteenth Inter-Faith Prayer Vigil for Emmanuel AME Church at the African American Civil War Memorial in Washington, D.C. Photo via Flickr by Elvert Barnes]