Juneteenth: The Newest Federal Holiday

Guest post by AAMLO Chief Curator Bamidele Agbasegbe Demerson.

Kamala Harris, Vice President of the United States of America—in prefatory remarks before President Joseph Biden signed the observance of Juneteenth (a portmanteau combining June and nineteenth) into law—noted that “Throughout history, Juneteenth has been known by many names: Jubilee Day, Freedom Day, Liberation Day, Emancipation Day, and today, a National Holiday.” This statement generated much applause by those who worked so tirelessly to see Juneteenth observed as a national holiday.

Of course, African Americans did not wait for a presidential decree to celebrate their most treasured freedom. In fact, since the 1860s, Black people have held a wide range of observances. They gathered for prayer vigils and church services to express heartfelt gratitude for emancipation. According to oral tradition, one old prayer conveyed a sense of poignancy and thanksgiving in a few simple, but profound words: “Lord we aint what we want to be, we aint what we ought to be, but thank God, we aint what we was.”

To demonstrate their new status as freed men, women, and children, Black people during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries often dressed in their finery and held parades. Mindful of the incontrovertibly turbulent history of bonded servitude, they held reenactments to dramatize their collective stories, especially for the young. In the early days, some members of the White power structure were not prepared to support celebrations of Juneteenth. When prohibited for largescale congregations on public property, Blacks purchased land for such celebrations. Alternatively, some even gathered on African American church grounds. Whatever the venue, the specialness of the day was often organized as a food festival featuring the consumption of barbeque, red velvet cake, red soda, red watermelon, and other delectable items.

Apart from the revelry of the day, many regard Juneteenth as a time of reflection. Those who traditionally observe the holiday generally think back to the past. But others use the past to measure how far we have come. For example, on January 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued the “Emancipation Proclamation.” That document declared that “all persons held as slaves” in states rebelling against the Union, “shall be then, and thenceforward, … forever fee.” But what was the fate of those held in bonded servitude in states that were part of the Union? Equally significant, the Emancipation Proclamation would prove difficult to enforce in rebellious states that were part of the Confederacy. Not surprisingly, the practice of slavery would continue through the Civil War and even after the war was officially over. When the Union Army’s General Gordon Granger, reached Galveston, Texas, on June 19, 1865, he announced General Order No. 3, thereby proclaiming the emancipation of those once enslaved.

The U.S. Congress—between 1865 and 1870—would pass key amendments to the Constitution, that upon ratification by each state, would profoundly change the legal status of those once enslaved. Thus, the thirteenth amendment abolished bonded servitude. The fourteenth amendment conferred citizenship upon on those once enslaved. Finally, the fifteenth amendment enfranchised men once held in bondage.

Today, as in yesteryears, reflective celebrants of June 19 have a lot to think about. Racial caste-like disparities abound. States across the country are engaged in gerrymandering to weaken the Black vote. The states, moreover, are enacting legislation and purging rosters so as to suppress the Black vote. President Biden on signing Juneteenth into law cogently said “This day does not just celebrate the past. It calls for action today.” Are we answering that call?