Juneteenth, or June 19th, is a holiday that offers opportunities for us to reflect on and celebrate the emancipation of enslaved people in the United States.
What is Juneteenth?
On January 1, 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation took effect in the United States. However, it did not immediately free enslaved people; it only applied to enslaved people in the Confederate states, where it was difficult for the Union to enforce the order.
As a result, when the Union Army began to capture Arkansas and Louisiana, slaveholders there moved their enslaved people to Texas to escape the army’s reach. Slaveholders deliberately did not announce the news to keep their enslaved people for as long as possible. By 1865, there were roughly 250,000 enslaved people in Texas.
On the morning of June 19, 1865, Union troops marched through Galveston, a town where thousands of enslaved people lived. There, Union General Gordon Granger issued General Order Number 3.
“The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free,” the order read.
“To think that, in 1865, there were still people who didn’t realize that slavery had ended– when it finally got to that portion of Texas, it was like the first feel-good moment of that time,” said Claire Jones, director of the METCO program in Sharon. “This was a time that was tragic and painful, but it came to an end.”
Juneteenth as a holiday
On June 19, 1866, formerly enslaved people in Texas hosted the first “Jubilee Day” celebration. In the following decades, celebrations continued and spread as freedmen migrated from Texas to other parts of the country.
“Personally, as a Haitian American, I see the holiday as extremely important to not only recognize this important day, but also to help America reflect and remember what atrocities happened for over 2 centuries,” said Nyla Dessalines, secretary of Sharon’s BSU.
The push to inaugurate Juneteenth as a federal holiday picked up momentum in 2020 during the summer of Black Lives Matter protests as a result of the murder of George Floyd. That same year, Governor Charles Baker issued a proclamation that the day would be “Juneteenth Independence Day” in Massachusetts.
On June 17, 2021, Juneteenth officially became a federal holiday.
“I’m worried that [Juneteenth] will get commercialized and lose its meaning… Sometimes when you think about the holiday, it’s just a day off… I’m hoping we don’t lose the meaning of the holiday and what it really signifies because there’s still so much work to do with equity and inclusion,” said Jones.
“Even though I feel like it’s a very big step in America to name Juneteenth a national holiday, I do feel like there’s a lot of other steps to not only remember slavery, but to reparate the people still affected to this day,” said Dessalines. “Although it is important to name this a national holiday, direct work in Black American communities… [is] very beneficial as well.”
How to celebrate
Just like every other holiday, celebrations can look different for everyone. Some people choose to attend public events, host parties, or not celebrate at all.
“I celebrate Juneteenth by going to local events. In the past, I’ve been to festivals filled with food, giveaways, art and music. It’s such a great feeling to be surrounded by such a rich culture in one space- the energy and vibes leave me with a warm feeling,” said Destiny Prioleau, president of Sharon’s BSU.
“For me and my family, we’ve always celebrated Juneteenth,” said Jones. “My friends and family get together every year in Franklin Park in Boston. We get ready, gear up, put up tents and we have family… there are readings from different poets and there’s an acknowledgment that this really signifies our independence in the country.”