Juneteenth Finally Recognized After 156 Years of Resistance

“The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor…”  — General Order No. 3 – Galveston, Texas, June 19, 1865

Happy Juneteenth!  Today (also known as Black Independence Day, Emancipation Day, or Jubilee Day) commemorates June 19, 1865 when the last group of enslaved people in America learned of their emancipation from Major General Gordon Granger in Galveston, TX.

Although Juneteenth has been celebrated (primarily by the Black community) for over 150 years, a study by The New York Times shows more than 60 percent of Americans know “nothing at all” or only “a little bit” about the holiday and only 31 percent of white respondents have any knowledge of it (a percentage which is likely higher than previous years due to the Black Lives Matter movement). Based on discussions with both Black and non-Black friends, it seems that most Americans are never taught about the holiday and its role in slavery abolition: one example of white supremacy sanitizing history.

A long-overdue law to establish Juneteenth as a national holiday was signed by President Biden on Thursday.  Just as it was not Abraham Lincoln, but the slaves and freedmen who fought courageously in the Civil War and formed underground resistance networks who are responsible for the abolishing of slavery in the U.S., this holiday has become nationally recognized not thanks to President Biden, but because of the commitment of the black community to continue to recognize and honor this day ever since General Granger delivered General Order No. 3 to the people of Texas 156 years ago.

In 2016, at 89 years old, lifelong activist Opal Lee, often known as the “Grandmother of Juneteenth”, marched all the way from her home in Fort Worth, Texas, to D.C. in an effort to make Juneteenth a federal holiday.  Having grown up during a period of history when violence against the black community such as the Tulsa Race Massacre (which occured in June of 1921) was frequent, Lee experienced her own trauma when white supremacists set her family home ablaze on Juneteenth in 1939.  Now a national figure, Lee truly embodies what The Marquis Jaylen Brown Foundation considers “Trauma to Triumph”.

Lee is one of several Black activists responsible for the passing of this law. In 1979, former Texas state representative Al Edwards headed legislation to make Texas the first state to recognize Juneteenth as a state holiday. Edwards believed that every generation needs to be reminded yearly “that this event triggered a series of events that one by one defines the challenges and responsibilities of successive generations”.

This year, Pittsburgh will be celebrating Juneteenth as an official holiday for the first time. Celebrations starting this weekend include the WPA Juneteenth Pittsburgh-Allegheny Co. Freedom Days and the Black Music Festival at Point State Point (June 18 – June 27).

Chadé Darby, a local activist, graciously offered her thoughts on Juneteenth.

Chadé: I’m speaking for myself, not the whole Black community of Pittsburgh. I’m just a Black girl from the Philly suburbs.

How can we commemorate Juneteenth and support the Black community here in Pittsburgh?

Chadé: I would task folks with three things: learn about the history of Juneteenth, give reparations, and continue the fight for racial equity. Juneteenth has been around for a while but it seems like now it’s just getting the nation’s attention. Folks should learn about the significance of the day: how it took 2 years after the Emancipation Proclamation was published for 250,000 enslaved people in Texas to finally be freed. Reparations from non-black people can come in different forms. Give Black people, Black orgs, and Black businesses your money, time, and resources.  Juneteenth as a federal holiday is a great step but is purely symbolic if people do not continue to work towards Black liberation. That means people should be thinking about ways they can get involved to fight for racial justice.

Will making Juneteenth a federal holiday help bring awareness to Black history and impact studies of race in American schools?

Chadé: I hope that more people become aware about Juneteenth through it becoming a Federal holiday. I hope more history teachers talk about it in schools. I was never taught about Juneteenth in school. I learned about it from my dad. He is from Texas and his sister’s birthday is on Juneteenth. Every year, we would give my Aunt a call and my dad would remind me about the holiday.

What does Juneteenth and absolute equality mean to you?

Chadé: Juneteenth serves as a reminder of the trials and tribulations my ancestors faced to receive freedom. While slavery still exists through the prison industrial complex, I am hopeful that with more awareness about the history of our country and the systems that have oppressed my ancestors and other marginalized groups will lead to a better future for all.

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