Celebrating Juneteenth

Juneteenth is a holiday in the Black community celebrating the emancipation of slaves in Galveston, Texas. Juneteenth has evolved to symbolize the celebration of the emancipation of all enslaved people. Last year, in response to the pandemic and the death of George Floyd, several Black museums came together to organize the Black Freedom Collective which produced a virtual Juneteenth celebration.

It is fitting that as the Black Freedom Collective 2021 Juneteenth celebration came online, President Biden signed the bill making Juneteenth a federal holiday. The national recognition of the emancipation of enslaved people is long overdue.

Juneteenth is arguably one of the most recognized emancipation celebrations. The holiday commemorates June 19, 1865 when Union General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas and freed the enslaved people in accordance with the Emancipation Proclamation which was signed two years earlier on January 1, 1863. The Emancipation Proclamation was used to destabilize the Confederacy by freeing its enslaved population. A military maneuver, the proclamation’s implementation indicated that should the Union win the war, the end of slavery in the United States was likely inevitable.

There are other Emancipation Day celebrations. In Washington, DC April 16 commemorates President Lincoln enacting the Compensated Emancipation Act which freed enslaved people in the District of Columbia. In parts of Tennessee and Kentucky, August 8 is a recognized Emancipation Day noting the date when military governor Andrew Johnson freed his slaves. Throughout the nineteenth century, Black communities in various parts of the United States celebrated August 1, commemorating August 1, 1834 when slavery was abolished in the British Empire. These Emancipation days were moments of joy, but they never ignored the reality of Black life in America. Emancipation celebrations occurred in the midst of racial terrorism, lynching, segregation, and other injustices. These celebrations were reminders that despite the abolition of slavery, Black people were living in partial freedom.

Freedom is a right not a privilege, and Black people were willing to fight for that right.

Today, little has changed. Juneteenth and other emancipation holidays still retain their duality: a celebration of the abolition of slavery and public reminder that Black people’s rights to freedom are still contested.

Juneteenth, the national holiday, must be presented in the historical context of American history. The joy of Juneteenth exists in relationship with the horror and consequences of slavery. The significance of Juneteenth celebrations exists in relationship with the history of racism and Black life in America. Juneteenth, the national holiday, cannot wipe away generations of racism. Hibiscus tea and strawberry soda (the traditional Juneteenth drinks) cannot wash away the bitter lingering taste of racism and discrimination.

We should celebrate Juneteenth, but not lose its context.

We should continue to learn and understand more about our collective past as a country. A simple way to do this is by visiting the National Civil Rights Museum and similar museums. We do this work every day, emphasizing the complexities of American history and the Black experience in America.

Our joy cannot be fully appreciated without understanding our struggle and sorrow.

– Dr. Noelle Trent, Museum Director of Interpretation, Collection & Education

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