Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Jubilation in June

The story of Juneteenth, America's other independence day

By Chris Davis

JUNE 19, 2000:  One man's history may be honestly viewed as another man's "Calendar of Infamy." To wit, I offer the story of Juneteenth, the oldest, and perhaps most meaningful of all African-American holidays. America, as a nation, celebrates it's independence on July 4th, but by all rights we should celebrate our independence as a free and united society on the 19th of June -- Juneteenth. If you have never heard of this 135-year-old holiday, it is because some good news travels mighty slow.

"Whereas, on the twenty-second day of September, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-two, a proclamation was issued by the President of the United States, containing, among other things, the following, to wit:

'That on the first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.'"

Thus began President Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation. Though the now lionized document's sentiment was certainly noble and its content seemingly brave and defiant, in the end, it freed not a single slave. Not one. The document was riddled with loopholes and worded in such a way that slavery remained perfectly legal in border states that remained loyal to the Union.

Ultimately any significant enforcement of the proclamation within the Confederate borders depended on military victory and federal occupation. What the proclamation did do however, and quite effectively at that, was create a sense of hope among the Southern slaves, and a reinvigorated sense of purpose -- at least among those who were fortunate enough to hear the news. For the slaves of Galveston, Texas that news wouldn't arrive for another two-and-a-half years.

Why it took so long for the information to reach East Texas a much debated topic. Some say that a messenger was brutally murdered on the road to Galveston. Others claim simply that the masters knew but deliberately withheld the information in order to maintain their labor force. Some even believe that federal troops were sympathetic to the Confederates' situation and allowed the besieged planters to take in one last cotton crop before enforcing the proclamation.

Even if none of these stories are factual, this much is certain: On the 19th of June General Granger rode into Galveston and announced, "All slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection between former masters and slaves becomes that between employer and free laborer."

There was great jubilation. America had finally taken its first baby steps toward the ultimate fulfillment of freedom's promise.

Though Juneteenth was celebrated annually in Galveston and surrounding areas, it took some time for the holiday to catch on elsewhere. When it did catch on it was not well received in the white community. Now that the masters had become employers they were reluctant to allow their workers time off to celebrate something that they considered to be a nuisance. And since raucous behavior among blacks was not to be tolerated in any public places, Juneteenth moved into secluded rural areas.

The celebrations, which always included feasting, rodeos, and music, took place near creeks, or on the grounds of black churches. In these places it thrived until the early part of the 20th century when standardized textbook education began to replace home schooling and oral traditions as a primary means of education.

These textbooks singled out the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, not as a catalyst but as the primary event which brought an end to slavery. This coupled with severe economic hardships nearly brought an end to all Juneteenth celebrations. It was not until the 1960s, when African Americans struggled not only for equal rights but also to restore their unique American heritage, that the important celebration was revived. Nearly 40 years later, it is finally becoming popular nationwide.

Over the past seven years, the Memphis Juneteenth celebration in Douglass Park has grown to an event that draws tens of thousands. Not only does it feature three entertainment stages, it also focuses on black history and heritage. This year's festivities will be structured around the underground railroad.

While festival producer Glynn Johns Reed stresses the importance of history and education, she also wants people to know that Juneteenth is a party. In Memphis, the whole family can both learn and enjoy.

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