Juneteenth: Context and Connotation of Emancipation Day
This week's blog is guest written in two parts. Loudoun Museum board member Omari Faulkner shares his personal thoughts on the holiday of Juneteenth and it's cultural significance in part one. This is followed by a contextual history of Juneteenth including information about past and present celebrations in part two, written by Loudoun Museum staff Paige Armstrong.
We each rise every day with the opportunity to create history, within our personal lives, communities, for our Nation and onto the global community at large. History is not only about battles won, but about the lessons learned and the reason why battles were fought in the first place. Our mistakes do not need to define us, but teach us lessons to be better women and men. In commemoration of Juneteenth 2019, I wrote this article and one year later I still encourage everyone to understand our Nation's present and past; use our lessons learned towards educating and shaping future generations, so they may not repeat past mistakes.
– Omari Faulkner, Loudoun Museum’s Vice Chairman
Image: Vice Chairman Omari Faulkner speaks at Loudoun Museum's Juneteenth Lunch in 2019.
Juneteenth Is A Celebration of the United States’ History & Promise
It can be hard to grasp the brutality of slavery, because it feels like it was so long ago. We seem far removed from a past that included some of the most horrific acts of terror, intimidation, and dehumanization ever committed on our country’s soil.
That’s why history and education are so important, and it’s why Juneteenth, the day that commemorates the enforcement of the Emancipation Proclamation in the state of Texas, is such an important day for all Americans to celebrate, regardless of race, class, sex, or religion. When we understand our past, we can celebrate our present and continue to build a stronger, more inclusive, and thriving future for our country.
As a kid in the south, the topic of slavery made me seethe. I remember fuming, “How could people be treated in such a way by other people?” Yet I enjoyed visiting the antebellum plantations in Georgia. Seeing the endless acres of land and the beautiful oak trees draped in moss, I felt a bit closer to those who worked the land and withstood the unbearable conditions.
I remember visiting the National Civil Rights Museum in my hometown of Memphis, Tennessee for the first time at the tender age of 9 or 10. Prior to the visit, I had learned much about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., but to stand in front on the Lorraine Motel (on which the museum is centered) and see the actual balcony where he was assassinated was a moment I can never forget. At that moment, I fell in love with historical preservation.
A couple decades later I toured Mount Vernon, the home of our nation’s first president, George Washington. I remember the chills that spread across my body when our tour guide said, “At some point every founding father of our nation has been in this very dining room.” I was floored that very moment.
Today when I visit gravesites, museums, and landmarks honoring those who were enslaved in our country, I no longer feel that frustration I felt as a kid. Instead, my mind goes back in time.
Reflecting on Juneteenth, I ponder what it must have felt like to be a slave in Texas and to hear for the first time, on June 19, 1865, that slavery ended in America. I think of the feelings and emotions that must have spread through the hearts and souls of newly freed slaves throughout the state, which had successfully isolated the news of Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender on April 9 of that year, effectively ending the Civil War.
On June 19, 1865, Gen. Gordon Granger of the Union Army issued the following order in Galveston, Texas: “The people are informed that in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property, between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them, become that between employer and hired labor. The freed are advised to remain at their present homes, and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts; and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.”
This order caused much uproar and resistance among most slave-owners across the Confederate states. There was targeted violence against freed slaves, as well as intimidation tactics such as laws called “Black Codes.” But in true American fashion, freedom prevailed and slavery in our country was abolished. While Juneteenth wasn’t the end of all the vestiges of slavery, the day gave hope and promise to millions of freed slaves in America.
“This historic moment would not have been possible without the courage and sacrifice of the nearly 200,000 former enslaved and free African Americans who fought for liberty alongside more than 2 million Union servicemen,” said President Trump on Juneteenth last year. “As a nation, we vow to never forget the millions of African Americans who suffered the evils of slavery.”
Because of this rich history, I still love visiting historic sites. While not always glitz and glamour, learning history provides an emotional and contextual perspective on eras we’d never know much about unless bold steps are taken to preserve, protect, and educate the public about our past. Throughout our country and across the globe there are passionate volunteers, professional curators, historical foundations, philanthropists, and everyday citizens (amongst a host of others) who invest countless hours towards preserving our history to paint vivid pictures of our past times.
History connects our past to our current state. It relays our progress and unlimited potential, while reminding us of the responsibility of today’s challenges. Visitors leave historical sites, museums, and the like with lasting impressions that in many cases can change the course of our future.
Today, it falls on us to honor the courageous acts of those who took a stand at critical moments in history. That bravery has inspired countless others, which is how we continue to strive to form a more perfect union. On the night he was elected in 2008, President Obama said, “That’s the true genius of America: that America can change. Our union can be perfected.”
This Juneteenth, I pay homage to those who were enslaved and celebrate the news they received on June 19, 1865. I proudly give thanks to being born in a country that had the foresight in July 1776 to pronounce a bold Declaration of Independence, the first step in building a governmental and societal framework that allows We the People to act boldly within our families, communities, and nation.
Let us all seek ways we can preserve and embrace our culture. Let us celebrate the successes we have achieved in recent years and look forward to a thriving future. And let us celebrate the moments in history such as Juneteenth, which define the United States of America and show that we can overcome anything.
Omari Faulkner is the author of the new book “Athlete for Life.” He is a proud American, former diplomat, Georgetown professor, and a staunch supporter of culture and inclusion, history and diplomacy. Follow his work on Twitter @OmariFaulkner
Image: Juneteenth Celebration in Richmond, VA circa 1905. Image credit: Library of Congress
What is Juneteenth?
Juneteenth is an American holiday celebrated annually on June 19th. This day commemorates the day, June 19th, 1865, when Union general Gordon Granger read federal orders in Galveston, Texas, that all previously enslaved people in Texas were now free.
“The people are informed that in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property, between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them, become that between employer and hired labor. The freed are advised to remain at their present homes, and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts; and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.”
Juneteenth background information.
The Emancipation Proclamation had freed slaves two and a half years prior, but wasn’t able to be properly enforced in all states right away. Texas was difficult due to its remote location and low presence of Union troops, this made enforcement of the proclamation slow and inconsistent.
Juneteenth celebrations date back to 1866, and first involved church-centered community gatherings in Texas. Soon celebrations would spread across the South and would become more commercialized in the 1920s and 30s, resembling large food festivals. During the Civil Rights movement in 1960s, Juneteenth lost some popularity. Black Americans fight for equal and civil rights overshadowed any Juneteenth celebrations. The holiday would become popular once again in the 1970s, with focus on Black American freedom and art playing a role in the holiday’s resurgence. Today Juneteenth is observed as a state holiday or special day in 47 states, excluding Hawaii and North and South Dakota, yet it is not considered a national holiday.
Image: Juneteenth band. Photograph by Grace Murray Stephenson of celebrations in Eastwoods Park, Austin, 1900.
Image credit: University of North Texas Libraries
What are Juneteenth celebrations like?
Juneteenth is considered the longest running African American holiday, and been called America’s second Independence Day. Juneteenth celebrations like to focus on remembering the roots of Black American culture and the history behind their freedom. Public readings of the Emancipation Proclamation is one such tradition used to remind celebrators of the freedom gained by enslaved persons. Other traditions including singing songs such as “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and “Lift Every Voice and Sing” and reading works by noted Black American writers such as Ralph Ellison and Maya Angelou. Other celebrations consist of street fairs, cookouts, family reunions, historical reenactments and even Miss Juneteenth contests.
What is the significance of red colored food at celebrations?
During Juneteenth celebrations it’s not uncommon to see large spreads of red velvet cakes, watermelon, pitchers of red fruit punch or cans of strawberry soda at cookouts, but why is that? There are some stories that say the red food is meant to symbolize the blood from the millions of slaves who had suffered and died. Though some historians believe that the significance of red food at Juneteenth celebrations may have a another meaning behind it. “The practice of eating red foods—red cake, barbecue, punch and fruit– may owe its existence to the enslaved Yoruba and Kongo brought to Texas in the 19th century. For both of these cultures the color red is the embodiment of spiritual power and transformation.”
Red drinks at celebrations also have a history of their own. Culinary historian Adrian Miller said that, “red drinks at Juneteenth celebrations have links to the fruits of two native West African plants: the kola nut and hibiscus. The kola nut, typically white or red, was and still is served to guests as a snack to chew, used as a water purifier, or steeped for tea. The flowers of the hibiscus, too, were often stewed to make a reddish-purple tea called bissap and provided to guests. Both were extracted to the Caribbean and the Americas during the Atlantic slave trade.”
Even after slavery the importance of red colored drinks would find different ways to evolve in black households. It wasn’t uncommon to see homemade lemonades or teas infused with red fruits such as cherries or strawberries in the 1800s, this is still a popular trend even today. “During the Southern Cooking era, molasses and water and red lemonade were inexpensive, refreshing drinks that could be made easily and quickly; their popularity reflected the poor economic condition of African-Americans in the rural South,” wrote Miller in his book Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time."
Image: Photograph by George McCuistion of Juneteenth celebrations in in Corpus Christi, Texas, 1913.
Image Credit: Southern Methodist University Collection
Juneteenth in 2020
Sadly, due to Covid-19 some celebrations for the holiday have been postponed or canceled indefinitely. The annual DC festival and community gathering had to be canceled this year, as well as numerous others across the country. Even with these cancelations people are still making sure that the holiday doesn’t go uncelebrated. Some cities are creating online resources for those still wishing to participate in Juneteenth celebrations. Miami, for example, is holding a online film festival where they will be screening the movie “When Liberty Burns.” All day on the 19th anyone can rent and watch the film online for $13. In South Broward the normal parade and gathering is being replaced by streaming a modified version of the annual festivities so South Florida residents can still celebrate while social distancing. A secret line-up of performers will include junkanoo musicians; gospel singers; a rendition of “Lift Every Voice and Sing," which is popularly known as the “Black National Anthem”; speakers from local, state and federal government; and recognition of Broward community members.
Happy Juneteenth! We hope your celebrations are meaningful, joyous, and safe.
Terroir Noire: African American Foodways in Slavery, Texas - By: Michael Twitty
https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/what-is-juneteenth (June 19, 2018)
How Red Food and Drink Joined the Juneteenth Feast - By: Christina Ayele Djossa
10 Facts: Juneteenth
(June 10, 2020)
Here’s how you can celebrate Juneteenth 2020
Early Photographs of Juneteenth Celebrations