Let’s All Observe Juneteenth
In 2020, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts joined 46 other states and the District of Columbia officially recognizing the historical and present-day significances of Juneteenth. “A portmanteau of ‘June’ and ‘nineteenth,’ Juneteenth marks the day in 1865 when a group of enslaved people in Galveston, Texas, finally learned that they were free from the institution of slavery,” (Cineas, 2020). By the time the news reached Galveston, President Abraham Lincoln had already issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, General Robert E. Lee had already surrendered, and the ratification process of the 13th Amendment (abolishing slavery) was already underway.
When the news of freedom finally reached east Texas, it was delivered by Major General Gordon Granger in General Orders, Number 3, which partly stated, “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.” Harvard’s Alphonse Fletcher University Professor, Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr., highlights that, “When Texas fell and Granger dispatched his now famous order No. 3, it wasn’t exactly instant magic for most of the Lone Star State’s 250,000 slaves. On plantations, masters had to decide when and how to announce the news – or wait for a government agent to arrive – and it was not uncommon for them to delay until after the harvest,” (2013).
The first Juneteenth celebrations occurred in 1866 when the formerly enslaved “transformed June 19 from a day of unheeded military orders into their own annual rite,” (Gates, 2013). Festivities since then included gathering family members, reading the Emancipation Proclamation, acknowledging the progress of the formerly enslaved, singing spirituals, attending sermons, parades and pageantry, barbecues, and dancing from morning till night (Cineas, 2020; Gates, 2013; Wiggins, 1998). Some celebrations have incorporated “new games and traditions, from baseball to rodeos and later, stock car races and overhead flights,” (Gates, 2013).
It is important to note that Juneteenth celebrations ebbed and flowed with time. “Juneteenth observations declined in the 1940s during World War II but were revived in 1950… The celebrations would decline again as attention went to school desegregation and the civil rights movement in the late 1950s and 1960s. But they picked up again in the 1970s…” (Cineas, 2020). According to Hamer and Barden (1998), “Juneteenth remained an unofficial ‘folk’ celebration until the Civil Rights and Black Arts Movements helped focus attention on African-American traditional culture. It was accorded formal status in 1979, when Juneteenth was made a state holiday by the Texas legislature.”
Acknowledgement and celebrations of this historically significant day eventually reached all corners of the United States. “Over time, Juneteenth spread to neighboring states like Louisiana, Arkansas, Oklahoma and eventually to California as black Texans moved west; it also appeared in Florida and Alabama in the early 20th century due to migration from Texas…” (Cineas, 2020). Similar forms of celebrations occurred in these states: dancing, parades, singing, cookouts, and more. Slowly but surely, many states started to follow Texas’s example to acknowledge Juneteenth as a state holiday or a day of observance.
Juneteenth celebrations even washed ashore on Nantucket Island. A search for Juneteenth in the Nantucket Atheneum’s Historic Digital Newspaper Archive, which has the island’s newspapers from 1821 to 2013 digitized, found nine references. The earliest of the nine references found was for an event at the Quaker Meeting House in 1995, two of the findings referred to a “free recipe for West African Ginger Ale to celebrate the African-American holiday,” one of the references spotlighted Ralph Ellison’s book of the same name, and two of the references were about academic lectures that occurred on island in 2009 and 2011. The other three of the nine references were about the same event, which was to raise money for the restoration of the African Meeting House. The event was hosted by The Friends of the African Meeting House and interestingly, the advertisement for the event reads like a Texas celebration.
In 1997, the following advertisement appeared in the Inquirer and Mirror: Juneteenth Community Barbecue 3 to 6:30 p.m. at the Point Breeze Hotel on Easton Street. A community barbecue in celebration and support of the on-going restoration of Nantucket’s historic African American landmark, The African Meeting House. Juneteenth gatherings, named by the blending of the words ‘June’ and ‘nineteenth,’ are a tradition that celebrated the time when slaves in Texas learned the long-delayed news that they were legally free. Old-fashioned barbecue fare of chicken, ribs, hamburgers, hot dogs, assorted salads and all the trimmings will be served. A raffle, music and entertainment for adults and children will add to the fun. Tickets – $25 for adults, $15 for children under 14 – may be purchased in advance at Flowers at the Boarding House or at the barbecue. All proceeds will go to the restoration of the Meeting House. (The Inquirer and Mirror, 1997)
In an effort to restore Nantucket’s most iconic symbol of its black heritage, The Friends of the African Meeting House wisely acknowledged the significance of Juneteenth and honored the history of the day in similar fashion with food, music, and gathering community members.
The recent wave of public outcries and demonstrations for social justice and an end to racism, sexism, xenophobia, and all forms of intolerance have made the recognition of Juneteenth more significant. “These days, Juneteenth is an opportunity not only to celebrate but also to speak out,” (Gates, 2013). Municipalities and states are answering the outcry of their constituencies. Corporations are also acknowledging Juneteenth, “Several companies have also declared that their businesses would recognize the day as a company holiday,” (Whitmore, 2020). Some of these companies include: Target, Nike, Lyft, Buzzfeed, Twitter, the New York Times, and the National Football League.
As for the Commonwealth, Massachusetts General Laws, Chapter 6, Section 15BBBBB states in part that, “The governor shall annually issue a proclamation setting apart the nineteenth of June as Juneteenth Independence Day, to be observed on the Sunday that is closest to June 19th of each year, in recognition of June 19, 1865…”. Going forward, hopefully, Nantucket’s residents can agree that Juneteenth is important and it should be celebrated. Together, let’s all observe Juneteenth.
By: Kimal McCarthy, Town of Nantucket Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Director