This Sunday, June 19, African-Americans across the South and beyond (and others who recognize the holiday) will celebrate Juneteenth. This is the 140th anniversary of what many call "America's Second Independence Day," marking the day in 1865 -- over two years after President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation -- that slaves in Texas were finally set free.
Here's a description we ran in Southern Exposure magazine in 1977:
The Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863, did not have any effect in Texas because to little of the state was occupied by Northern troops. When Lee surrendered in April, 1865, most Texas plantations were still intact, and a quarter-million black people were working as slaves.
It was not until June 19, 1865 -- when General George Granger arrived with Yankee troops in Galveston and issued his own emancipation decree -- that slaves were actually freed in Texas. June 19 -- "Juneteenth" -- therefore became the day of celebration.
Omitted from the history books and largely ignored by the mainstream (white) media, Juneteenth nonetheless thrived as a popular underground holiday, especially in the black South. Here's what a retired teacher who grew up in a community of black landowners around the turn of the century (so rare today) told Southern Exposure in 1977:
It was just a happy, getting-together day. We'd be farming and everybody would try to get the land clean by the nineteenth. If I had my crop cleaned out and you didn't have yours cleaned, I would come over and try to get yours cleaned out, too. We all worked for that day: to have the crops cleaned to take that holiday. We'd get together and buy a beef, or maybe someone would throw in a beef or part of a hog. Then we'd get together to barbecue it. The women would fix baskets, salads, cakes and pies. And we'd all meet at a special place. There would be soda water and ice cream. We'd make our own ice cream. And we would have ball games, horse races, goose-neck pullings and some kind of music at night. Wouldn't have sermons or spirituals; it was just a joyful day."
Texas didn't recognize Juneteenth as an official holiday until 1980,
and as one person notes, "To this day, the Lone Star State remains alone in its affirmation of an anniversary of significance to many African Americans." [ed note: see update below]
Yet Juneteenth still thrives as a patchwork quilt of grassroots celebrations across the country -- still strongest in the South, but now reaching into places like Milwaukee and Minneapolis, where two of the biggest festivals are held.
For information about Juneteenth and celebrations in your area, check out this site. And have a great Juneteenth weekend!
UPDATE ONE: My source on Texas being the only state to recognize Juneteenth was wrong (I thought it was, should have trusted instinct). The Texas Monthly sets us straight:
MYTH: Juneteenth is a celebration unique to Texas.
REALITY: It was for 115 years, becoming an official state holiday in 1980, but its popularity spread nationwide after a 1991 Smithsonian exhibit showcased the history of black Texans' Emancipation Day. Now Alaska, Florida, and thirteen other states also officially recognize Juneteenth.
UPDATE TWO: I cross-posted this over at DKos, which led to some good discussion about where Juneteenth is being celebrated. Los Angeles and Seattle are in full celebration mode. Salt Lake City did things its own way and celebrated last weekend.
UPDATE THREE: A reader emails to recommend Ralph Ellison's novel Juneteenth, which he started in 1951 and died in 1994 before completing. Here's an interesting piece on how the book came together.