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Today Is Juneteenth, the USA’s Second Independence Day

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 19, 2020

Today is Juneteenth, a holiday that started in Texas that celebrates the emancipation of enslaved people in the United States. From Vox’s Juneteenth, explained:

A portmanteau of “June” and “nineteenth,” Juneteenth marks the day in 1865 when a group of enslaved people in Galveston, Texas, finally learned that they were free from the institution of slavery. But, woefully, this was almost two and a half years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation; the Civil War was still going on, and when it ended, Union Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger traveled to Texas and issued an order stating that all enslaved people were free, establishing a new relationship between “former masters and slaves” as “employer and hired labor.” As much as Juneteenth represents freedom, it also represents how emancipation was tragically delayed for enslaved people in the deepest reaches of the Confederacy.

And freedom was further delayed, but the holiday stuck. From What Is Juneteenth? by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.:

When Texas fell and Granger dispatched his now famous order No. 3, it wasn’t exactly instant magic for most of the Lone Star State’s 250,000 slaves. On plantations, masters had to decide when and how to announce the news — or wait for a government agent to arrive — and it was not uncommon for them to delay until after the harvest. Even in Galveston city, the ex-Confederate mayor flouted the Army by forcing the freed people back to work, as historian Elizabeth Hayes Turner details in her comprehensive essay, “Juneteenth: Emancipation and Memory,” in Lone Star Pasts: Memory and History in Texas.

Those who acted on the news did so at their peril. As quoted in Litwack’s book, former slave Susan Merritt recalled, ” ‘You could see lots of niggers hangin’ to trees in Sabine bottom right after freedom, ‘cause they cotch ‘em swimmin’ ‘cross Sabine River and shoot ‘em.’ ” In one extreme case, according to Hayes Turner, a former slave named Katie Darling continued working for her mistress another six years (She ” ‘whip me after the war jist like she did ‘fore,’ ” Darling said).

Hardly the recipe for a celebration — which is what makes the story of Juneteenth all the more remarkable. Defying confusion and delay, terror and violence, the newly “freed” black men and women of Texas, with the aid of the Freedmen’s Bureau (itself delayed from arriving until September 1865), now had a date to rally around. In one of the most inspiring grassroots efforts of the post-Civil War period, they transformed June 19 from a day of unheeded military orders into their own annual rite, “Juneteenth,” beginning one year later in 1866.

From the NY Times’ collection of articles to mark the Juneteenth holiday, Veronica Chambers writes:

“Recently, I heard Angela Davis talk about the radical imagination,” Ms. [Saidiya] Hartman said. “And a fundamental requirement is believing that the world you want to come into existence can happen. I think that that is how black folks have engaged with and invested in and articulated freedom, as an ideal and as an everyday practice.”

I couldn’t agree more. As someone who has celebrated Juneteenth for a long time, I think we need it now — not in lieu of the freedom, justice and equality we are still fighting for — but in addition, because we have been fighting for so very long.

The elemental sermon embedded into the history and lore of Juneteenth has always been one of hope. The gifts of the holiday are the moments of connection, renewal and joy for a people who have had to endure so much, for so long.

Gina Cherelus shares how folks around the country celebrate, past and present — This Is How We Juneteenth:

Kenneth Timmons, who works for a federal government agency in Houston, said the first thing he usually does before every Juneteenth is take the day off work. Mr. Timmons usually invites friends over to cook and eat together.

“My co-workers know why I’m off, I tell them I don’t work Juneteenth,” Mr. Timmons, 47, said. “I don’t work on my Independence Day.”

Born and raised in Lufkin, Texas, a town more than 100 miles northeast of Houston, Mr. Timmons remembers attending community Juneteenth celebrations as a child, where he would watch rodeo shows, pageants, eat barbecue and participate in calf chasing contests.

“Even though the United States celebrates July 4 as their independence, we were still considered slaves,” said Mr. Timmons. “So for us, that is the day that our ancestors were finally released from servitude and slavery and could escape the South.”

Calls for Juneteenth to be a federal holiday have grown over the past few years. Here’s the case from the staff of The Root and Danielle Young — Juneteenth Is Finally Entering the Mainstream American Consciousness. Now Make It An Official Federal Holiday.

Forget the 4th of July! Juneteenth is the day that should be celebrated by all as a pivotal point in America’s freedom story.

93-year-old Texas resident Opal Lee is working to get Juneteenth recognized as a national holiday. You can follow her efforts here and sign her petition.

And finally, here are some ways to get involved in the movement for Juneteenth, including educational resources, events & protests, suggestions for how to invest in the Black community, places to donate, volunteer opportunities, etc.