What is Juneteenth?
Juneteenth is a holiday that commemorates the freeing of the last enslaved Africans in Texas in 1865. It is the United States’ most widely celebrated holiday of the Emancipation of enslaved African descendants. Freedom bells rang for African Americans in the Confederate states on January 1, 1863. However, the good news of freedom didn’t travel to enslaved African descendants in Texas until June 19, 1865.
On January 1, 1863, President Lincoln wrote the Emancipation Proclamation. He gave the executive order to free “all persons held as slaves.” In Texas, January 1, 1863 came and went without news of the order. Enslaved Africans living in Texas didn’t learn about their emancipation and they certainly weren’t allowed to read about it—it was illegal. As a result, they remained in servitude.
There are several theories as to why this happened. One theory is that someone murdered the messenger carrying the news of emancipation. Another theory suggests that enslavers knew about the order but withheld knowledge of it because of the upcoming harvest. The latter makes more sense. At the time, Texas was a colony of Mexico and the institution of slavery was illegal under Mexican law. People held slaves in Texas, even though it was illegal. The culture in Texas included slavery in the 1800s up until enslaved Africans were freed in 1865.
How & Why We Celebrate Today
Today, we celebrate Juneteenth with food, family, friends, and fellowship. I grew up in Vallejo, California, and I remember going to many Juneteenth celebrations that involved all the above. Celebrations also included speakers, dancers, and poets who used their gifts to tell the story of Juneteenth and the importance of celebrating it every year. Food—BBQ in particular—was plentiful and played a huge role in the gathering. When I went to a Juneteenth celebration, I knew I would get a plate of downhome goodness. I also got smiles and the good word from elders in my community.
Juneteenth gave me my first experiences with Black art, African dance, and traditional African goods such as masks, textiles, and books. I felt represented. Celebrating Juneteenth honors the reclaiming of African American rights to freedom and culture. It was necessary in 1865, and it is still necessary now.