Dating back to 1865, it was on June 19th that Union soldiers, led by Major General Gordon Granger, landed at Galveston, Texas with news that the war had ended and that the enslaved were now free. Juneteenth is the oldest known celebration commemorating the ending of slavery in the United States:
in 1979 Texas became the first state to make Juneteenth an official holiday. (Ironically, the bill was passed on June 7, the anniversary of Homer Plessy’s arrest on the East Louisiana line, as covered in Plessy v Ferguson: Who Was Plessy.) Leading the charge was Rep. Al Edwards of Houston, often referred to as “the father of the Juneteenth holiday,” who framed it as a “source of strength” for young people, according to Hayes Turner. (As a concession to Lost Cause devotees, Texas reaffirmed its commitment to observing Jan. 19 as Confederate Heroes Day.)
Since then, 41 other states and the District of Columbia have recognized Juneteenth as a state holiday or holiday observance, including Rhode Island earlier this year. “This is similar to what God instructed Joshua to do as he led the Israelites into the Promised Land,” Al Edwards told Yahoo in 2007. “A national celebration of Juneteenth, state by state, serves a similar purpose for us. Every year we must remind successive generations that this event triggered a series of events that one by one defines the challenges and responsibilities of successive generations. That’s why we need this holiday.”
The richness of history is all around us and celebrations of monumental events in the past can bring great joy today. We can continue to inform the future with great lessons of history, but only as we observe it closely, celebrate the true heroes, unpack the complexities and the abiding divergences where history after a great struggle and tremendous suffering, took a turn for the better. Juneteenth is today, a different kind of independence day.
Image: Sacramento Juneteenth, Inc