“Juneteenth” is a portmanteau of June and nineteen and a parlance of Black American structure. The moniker hails the date June 19, 1865—the day that enslaved Black people in Texas got the news that slavery was abolished.
Here’s the rub, slaves in America were legally freed on enactment of the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. For two and a half years, in an unabashed effort to continue the status quo— having unpaid labor to run their cotton fields and plantation homes—slave owners kept the information away from their so-called slaves. In short, Texas went rogue.
How did the government get the largest state to abide by the rules? They sent artillery and a general who wasn’t one for losing battles. When Major General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, soldiers in tow, he made three announcements called General Orders. In summary:
- General Orders, No.3: the most pertinent to Juneteenth, stated that “all slaves are free”.
- General Orders, No.4: All civil and military officers connected to the “so-called Confederate State” must report for parole and consider all of their acts and laws illegitimate.
- General Order, No. 5: All the cotton cultivated by free labor was to be shipped to New York or New Orleans by plantation owners.
Freed Black men and women now had the opportunity to choose: Stay with former slave owners, now obligated to pay wages as employer to employee. Go in search of family members sold in slavery and try to establish a unit. Embark on this new journey called freedom, come what may. Whatever their choice, on June 19, we celebrate the freedom to make a choice.
Ironically, Texas was the first to make Juneteenth a state holiday in 1980. And in June 2021, Juneteenth officially became a federal holiday. Celebrations today range from festivals to old -school cookouts with family and friends. Similar to the first held in 1866, it can essentially be a party with a menu of traditional soul food fare: Collard greens, smothered chicken, black-eyed peas, barbecue and strawberry soda.
Sophia Strother has organized the Juneteenth celebration in Waco, Texas for the past several years. Born and raised in Springfield, Massachusetts, she explains: “Never once had I ever heard of Juneteenth until I moved to Texas and it was a holiday on the calendar. I never knew what it meant. I saw that African-Americans got together and were barbecuing and having a good time, still not knowing what it is.” In 2011, she did her own research. As a Community Impact Leader for the state of Texas, she felt that Juneteenth was bigger than a barbecue— it was a celebration of hope and cultural pride.
The first year, the event was held at Heritage Square in Waco in the location of its last public lynching. “I purposely did it that way,” Strother says, “I wanted the first year to be significant. The irony of it; so many years later, to celebrate in the same place we were shamed.” That year, 4500 people attended and it’s grown each year. “Now, the city gives us Brazos Park due to the growth. We have celebrities perform from hip hop to R&B to Jazz and Gospel. We want to make it attractive to all age groups, get them engaged and use the opportunity to get younger generations to understand the meaning behind Juneteenth.”
Juneteenth NYC takes place June 18 in Gershwin Park/Lincoln Park in Brooklyn. Athenia Rodney, 34, a Community Event Organizer who has worked with the commemoration for the past 8 years, designs the festival around a theme. “Our sponsors recognize that we host 4,000 people each year that speak to their demographic. This year our theme is domestic violence and its impact on us.” Through the musical performers, showcases and vendors, Rodney imparts, “This is about taking what Juneteenth stands for, recognizing our worth, and now that we have you engaged let’s educate you about something.”
Beverly Sanders, 59, was in her thirties, too, when she organized the first Juneteenth in Valdosta, Georgia in 1993. She, too, had never heard of it growing up. “At the time I was a manager at McMullen Southside Library; we barely had any books, lots of bare shelves. In 1992, we organized to form the Southside Library Boosters, trying to figure out a way to raise money for the Black neighborhood’s library. One of the boosters, from Texas, talked to us about Juneteenth. We decided to do a fundraiser around the day and try to raise money to buy books.” They had a three-day program educating people about June 19, a free barbecue and a dinner. “We raised $30,000 for the library.” However, in recent years, Sanders feels the interest in the celebration waning in the community. Everyone can be involved, Sanders says, “However, it’s important for young people to understand it’s significance and bring fresh, new ideas to the table.” Like Strothers and Rodney.
Celebrations can range from 5 people at the house, 50 people at a family reunion, to 50,000 people at the park like Twin Cities Juneteenth in Minneapolis has entertained. Honoring the day is an exercise in Black love and an offering the ancestors. On June 19, give thanks that in 2016 we have great liberties. Just remember to remember, we’re not free until all of us are free.
HOST A JUNETEENTH PARTY!
Create your own celebration of remembrance and music, have everyone bring a dish, barbecue and dance. Here are succulent soul food ideas based on tradition. Remember, barbecue and strawberry soda and red colored drinks make your Juneteenth menu.
Barbecue- beef brisket, pork
Black eye-eyed peas
Red velvet cake
Give your Juneteenth playlist a theme of fun and freedom. Choose some songs that represent the souls of Black folks. Here are some suggestions.
“Juneteenth Jamboree” by Gladys “Fatso” Bentley
“Living In Vain” by The Clarke Sisters
“A Change is Gonna Come” by Sam Cooke
“Redemption Song” by Bob Marley
“Free” by Prince
Lovely Day by Bill Withers
“Feelin’ Good” by Nina Simone
“Three Little Birds” by Bob Marley
“Say it Loud” by James Brown
“Golden” by Jill Scott
“UMI Says” by Mos Def
“Freedom” by the Golden Gate Quartet
“Proud To Be Black” by Run DMC
“Lift Every Voice and Sing” by Ray Charles
“Young, Gifted and Black” by Roberta Flack or Aretha Franklin
“I Be No Gentleman” by Fela Kuti
“Shining Star” by Earth Wind & Fire
“Free “by Deniece Williams
In Athens, Texas, Juneteenth is celebrated with a Rodeo of black cowboys; Galveston, Texas has an annual parade; Richmond, California has big multicultural dance party. But if you’re hosting at home or on picnic grounds with your family, give this barbecue a little more fire with the following additional activities.
Read Emancipation Proclamation
Read General Order No. 3 and discuss.
Have everyone bring a symbol of freedom
Sing spiritual music that honors the ancestors
Play African American trivia