Juneteenth: The Other American Independence Day

Juneteenth is misunderstood. Many believe that it is an African American holiday that celebrates the date Texas slaves were finally told that they were emancipated, and it is, but it is also about freedom and the end of oppression for everyone, regardless of race.

Juneteenth has more to do with liberty in general than the freedom of oppression for just one race. Just as it isn’t unusual to see people of all races enjoying a beer or four on St. Patrick’s Day, or celebrating Latino culture with cruising and music on Cinco de Mayo, people of all nationalities do and should celebrate Juneteenth.

Juneteenth has worldwide recognition, although it isn’t recognized on a federal level in any state, despite efforts to do so. Many Americans are unaware of the holiday, or think that because it doesn’t apply to them because they are not of African ancestry (which is debatable if you believe in the “Out of Africa” theory).

As an article in Time pointed out, Juneteenth is a holiday for all Americans, not just those of African ancestry. The piece was written by Vanderbilt University professor of religious studies, psychiatry and anthropology Volney Gay, who argued that there is value in the holiday for everyone.

“We should care because the very fabric of our society depends on our shared religion of inalienable rights. A celebration of freedom for any American is a celebration of the ideals that make our country what it is today.”

First celebrated in Texas, Juneteenth marks the date slaves in Texas were told that they were emancipated 2-and-a-half years after President Abraham Lincoln abolished slavery on January 1, 1863 by signing the Emancipation Proclamation. However, slaves in Galveston Island, Texas, weren’t informed and because there weren’t enough Union soldiers to enforce the law, slaves were completely unaware that they were free from servitude. Contrary to popular belief, the Emancipation Proclamation did not outlaw slavery, it was simply the first step.

It wasn’t until Union soldiers led by Major General Gordon Granger marched into Galveston Island on June 19, 1865, with the sole purpose of telling slaves they were free, that they realized that Granger and his men traveled and fought for 2 years to help them.

“The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free.”

That’s just one of the theories as to why it took 2-and-a-half years for the word to get out. One version of the tale states that a messenger was murdered, another said that federal troops wanted slave owners to reap the benefits of one last harvest before enforcing the law, and still another version recounts that slave owners simply didn’t want to lose their workforce.

Today, Juneteenth is celebrated as a day to review history, celebrate independence, and promote social and civil justice. It is a state holiday in Texas, but 43 other states celebrate as well with parades, barbecues, and memorial ceremonies, while others use it as a platform for political agendas.

This year, with such a volatile and racially divided political fight brewing, many civic-minded individuals will use this occasion to encourage voter registration and promote political campaigns. A good example of such activities comes from the camp of Jill Stein, the presumptive Green Party Nominee for President, who is calling for racial justice and reparations for former slaves.

In Denver, Colorado, gun control and gang violence are a focal point, as it will be with many of the Juneteenth celebrations.

Juneteenth is a celebration of freedom for every American, and according to Professor Gay, it needs constant tending.

“Lacking a common racial, ethnic or religious axis, the U.S. coheres around a transcendental belief in inalienable rights, especially liberty. On June 19, 1865, that ideal expanded to include people with whom we are now permanently joined as Americans. In recognition, Juneteenth—like July 4—should be celebrated by all.”

[Photo by David Paul Morris/Getty Images]