The History of Juneteenth
Juneteenth is a commemoration of when the last of those who were in enslavement in remote areas of Texas were informed of the Emancipation Proclamation that made them free. This notification was given over two years after the end of the Civil War and the same year the Thirteenth Amendment was passed by the House to abolish slavery and was ratified by the States later that year in December. This notification to enslaved bondsmen and bondswomen in Texas happened on June 19, 1865, and the blending of June and the date is how the celebration gained its name. Many of those early celebrations following 1865 were held in Texas although the end of Reconstruction and the adoptions of new restrictive laws throughout the south that sought to disenfranchise African Americans would lead to the decline of large scale celebrations for many years.
However, as African Americans left the south to go to other parts of the country, they took this celebration with them. Although Texas was the last state to be informed about emancipation, it became the first state to observe the date in 1980. Juneteenth celebrations spread, and today 46 states observe the holiday, including the state of California, which officially added the observance in 2002.
Growing up in the historically black neighborhood of Louisville, Kentucky's Smoketown, Freedom Day, as we called it, was celebrated at church as a festival in which food, gospel music, poetry, art, and speeches about the on-going struggle faced by African Americans in our community were essential parts of the celebration. Although my home state did not officially begin to observe the holiday until 2005, there was already a rich and robust history in my African American community. My father, born in 1915, whose family was originally from Louisiana, and my great aunt, who was born the year the Thirteenth Amendment passed and was part of the early Louisville, Kentucky African American freed community, would share with me stories about those early celebrations, the history of my family, and instilled in me the importance of maintaining this tradition. Juneteenth as a celebration has evolved into the celebrations that we see today, which may include large block parties, celebrity performances, and parades in some communities; although this year, many celebrations may be online.
When I originally penned this post back in May, things were... different. My focus was solely on the history and not the present of what is happening today; but I felt that I must revise. In these COVID-19 days and days of social unrest, we may find ourselves questioning how much progress we have made from 1619 when the first African slaves stepped foot on this soil. Protests have broken out in cities across the country against systematic racism that are reminiscent of the long hot summers of 1967 when over 150 racially-driven protests and riots erupted across the United States. Those 1967 protests were fueled by the frustrations of African Americans who faced racism, segregation, discrimination, poverty and mistreatment. Over 50 years later we find ourselves seeing these same reasons being used to explain the protests that have broken out on our streets today.
Like many of you, I find myself lost, upset, and questioning the very social contracts this country was founded on. My hometown of Louisville where I have such fond memories of the vibrant and active African American community has been thrown into chaos and flamed by the very spirits of those long-dead ancestors to demand those very rights that were denied them centuries ago. My friends are in the streets, my family divided, and like many of you, I find myself pitted against those whom I once held in esteem as to what is the way forward; what shape justice and equality should take.
This Juneteenth will be one baked in unrest and calls to us to hold true to the words that, "All men are created equal," despite our differences. I invite you on this day to take time to learn the history of Juneteenth, to take the time to read the stories of former Bondsmen and women in their own words, to peruse the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Collection page on our website to learn about the namesake of our main library, to take a walk by SJSU's Olympic Black Power statue and sit at the feet of Tommie Smith and John Carlos, to learn the history of African Americans after emancipations, to read stories, poetry and prose written by African Americans, to buy from African American businesses, to cook traditional southern African American food, to listen to gospel music, and to recall the many contributions African Americans have given to this country. I ask you to have hard conversations on race with your friends and family. I ask you to not be silent when you encounter injustice or bigotry. I ask you to listen to those voices who are crying out in the street to see their humanity. I ask you to offer support peacefully, in whatever ways sit best with you. Finally, I ask you to open not only your minds but your hearts.
I had planned to spend this Juneteenth teaching my daughter my father's southern banana pudding, making homemade jambalaya, listening to soul music, and telling her the same stories my great aunt and father used to share with me. However, now I will spend this day deeply explaining civil rights, having 9 minutes of silence, discussing what is social justice, and instilling in her a sense of pride of the history she comes from. One day, we will have parades again. We will gather in joy and not in collective anguish. One day, I hope we can look back at these times of unrest and see the progress we have made. One day, I dream to live or at least for my daughter to live in the world Dr. King envisioned. However, that future depends on what we ALL decide to do today.