Juneteenth: What Does It Mean Today – For This Country, For Me?

I am in awe of and appreciate the resilience of my ancestors every day, but on Juneteenth I appreciate them that much more. By Marissa Clarke, KIPP Foundation.

Marissa Clarke, KIPP Foundation

 

Conducting familial research in the Halifax Courthouse - May 2019
Conducting familial research in the Halifax Courthouse (May 2019)

 

Juneteenth

Think of every battle cry that has broken through chains,

And every mother who has lost her child’s little life

and every father who has been helpless whist in immense pain,

every grandmother, every aunt, every uncle who suffered

at the cruel hands who did not respect their true beauty,

their wonderful resilience, their faith, nor their culture.

Parted, and broken, and hurt in every possible and terrible way,

They did not give up, they stood strong as they still do today.

June the 19th, 1865, for America has multiple independence days

And when history remembers freedom, she recalls Juneteenth

with pride as one of her most holy and blessed days.

-Nikita Gill

What is Juneteenth? 

June 19th, 1865 marks the day slavery ended in Texas – more than TWO YEARS after the Emancipation Proclamation (legally ending slavery in the US).  The two year delay is attributed to the fact that slave owners in the state (of Texas) withholding this information from their “property” – because who wants to relinquish free labor, right?  To rectify this and ensure that all slaves were “freed,” Major General Gordon Granger (and some 1,800 troops) arrived in Galveston, TX to take control of the state and “free” the last remaining slaves in the area.

Upon being “freed,” former slaves left the region to find their respective relatives and/or to find new places to live.  This migration was known as The Scatter.  For those that stayed in the region, they found a way to commemorate their newfound “freedom” as a group by bypassing segregation laws (there were no public places freed slaves were able to use) that prevented them from congregating. These slaves pooled their money together and purchase ten acres of land, a land that they deemed Emancipation Park. This park was used to celebrate the first anniversary of Juneteenth on June 19th 1867.

Per Historian & American Literary Critic, Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr., Juneteenth was initially an “occasion for gathering lost family members” and “measuring progress against freedom.”  “Freed” slaves dressed to the nines to listen to speeches and to fellowship with each other.  Subsequent Juneteenth celebrations include readings of the Emancipation Proclamation, religious services, cookouts, fairs, historical reenactments, and family sporting events.  Eventually Juneteenth celebrations migrated out of the south to various states and regions across the country where there are festivals, parades, and even Ms. Juneteenth pageants.  A popular drink consumed was red soda (red, being a symbolic color for perseverance) – a drink that slaves weren’t allowed to consume when they were enslaved.

It’s worth mentioning that the majority of slaves were “freed” by June 19th, 1865, but not all until the ratification of the 13th Amendment – in December of 1865.  The 13th Amendment was basically a loophole to this newfound “freedom” – for it states, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as punishment for crime (this included petty crimes such as loitering, fitting the vague description of a criminal (super subjective and prejudicial), and homelessness) whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist with the United States, or any other place subjected to their jurisdiction.”  In reality – Blacks still aren’t completely “free” in this country. Our “freedom” is based on prejudicial caveats that are rooted in servitude and the belief that Blacks aren’t equal to their White counterparts.  For an in depth examination of the 13th Amendment and what it means for the “freedom” of Blacks,  you should watch the Academy-Award nominated documentary by 2019 KSS keynote speaker, Ava DuVernay, entitled 13th. (Streamable on Netflix.)

While Juneteenth is not recognized as a federal holiday, 47 of the 50 US states (as well as the District of Columbia) and various countries (including South Korea, Ghana, Israel, France, and Taiwan) recognize the day as a ceremonial holiday and have held Juneteenth celebrations.

What Does It Mean Today – For This Country, For Me?

The pandering of Juneteenth 2020 – encouraging the “African celebration” (a celebration first recognized in the US, not on the continent of Africa) by wearing Pan-African flag colors (Red, Green and Black – a flag designed by Marcus Garvey to represent people of the African Diaspora, symbolizing Black freedom), encouraging the adornment of traditional African garb (such as Dashikis) and/or various reputable companies (i.e. Twitter, Square, and Nike to name a few) giving their employees a paid day off to reflect on the plight of Black Americans (when it was barely acknowledged last year or years before) feels contrived – like a pacification of sorts.  However, I get it – people are waking up in the middle of a paradigm shift – a modern day Civil Rights Movement, if you will – and are acknowledging our rich history outside of the month that it has been relegated to for decades, Black History month.

My appreciation for the holiday was amplified after I traced my maternal roots (in Halifax, North Carolina) last spring – locating and holding the marriage certificate of my great grandparents, learning about the entrepreneurial spirit of my grandfather (purchasing, selling, and purchasing acres of land to leave to his children and grandchildren and great grandchildren – acres of land rich in hemp, cotton, lumber, and other agricultural goods still in my family’s possession).  I didn’t grow up celebrating the holiday in my household, but I did grow up with proud parents that readily taught of our ancestral history and encouraged my inquisitive mind to seek further knowledge in our local libraries, in school, and at home. I am in awe of and appreciate the resilience of my ancestors every day, but on Juneteenth I appreciate them that much more.