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Juneteenth: Living Liberation on June 19

Juneteenth at the State House in Montpelier in 2020. Photo by J. Gregory Gerdel.
Emancipation Day. Jubilee Day. Freedom Day. Juneteenth. 

All four names commemorate the anniversary date of the June 19, 1865 announcement proclaiming freedom from slavery in Texas. 

So why was the proclamation in Texas such a big deal? While President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation had abolished slavery over two years prior, it wasn’t until Union Army General Gordon Granger read the proclamation in Galveston, Texas, that the last of the enslaved people in the Confederacy were freed. 

As Blacks moved away from their enslavers and formed their own communities, they proclaimed June 19th their own Independence Day, commemorating it through celebrations held at churches or near water, since they were prohibited from using public facilities. These celebrations included fishing, baseball, rodeos, and elaborate meals where people wore their best clothing. Some celebrations were used as political rallies to provide voting instructions to those newly freed from their enslavement.

As years progressed, the popularity of Juneteenth waned. This was due to the changing circumstances within the country. Some attribute it to upwardly mobile Blacks wanting to assimilate and distance themselves from their pasts. Some attribute it to younger generations becoming more removed from their history. However, the Great Migration helped spread Juneteenth throughout the country, taking it beyond Texas and the south into places such as San Francisco, Seattle, and other northern states. During the Civil Rights Movement, Juneteenth became affiliated with the “The Solidarity Day of the Poor People’s Campaign.” The 1970s saw a resurgence in Juneteenth as a celebration of history and a continuation of the fight for civil rights. 

While Juneteenth has been widely celebrated in southern states for many years, it wasn’t until the events of 2020 that Juneteenth was catapulted into the spotlight. Amid growing rallies and protests, Black Lives Matter movements, and racial justice awareness, Juneteenth took on a new meaning. It became not only a celebration, but an opportunity to educate and agitate.

Juneteenth once again became a celebration of Black Pride and greatness. Cities across the country held events to commemorate this day. They included music, the singing of traditional songs such as “Lift Every Voice and Sing” and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” parades, spoken word, lectures, and readings of the Emancipation Proclamation and works by noted Black writers.

Popular television shows such as “Black-ish” re-aired episodes dedicated to Juneteenth (Season 4, Episode 1).

Even Twitter, Nike, Target, Uber, and other companies have recognized Juneteenth as a paid holiday for their employees. 

Texas was the first state to recognize the date in 1980, and by 2002, eight states officially recognized Juneteenth. By 2019, 47 states and the District of Columbia recognized Juneteenth. Despite the Senate unanimously passing a simple resolution in 2018 in honor of the day and legislation being introduced in Congress several times to make it either a “national day of observance” or a full-scale federal holiday, it is still not recognized.  The only three states yet to establish Juneteenth as a holiday are Hawaii, North Dakota, and South Dakota.

While Vermont became the 29th state in the nation to recognize Juneteenth as a state holiday, I personally had never seen a Juneteenth celebration here in Montpelier until this past summer. It was a welcome declaration of Black greatness. Even my kids commented how nice it was to go to the State House lawn to celebrate Black people. After a month of remembrance, education, and advocacy, it was a much-needed reminder of the beauty of their culture and blackness. Seeing people who look like them, being able to embrace their Ghanaian culture through clothing and cooking, and to participate in a joyful celebration of being Black was just what they needed after months of being inundated with negative images and news stories.

This year we will again be attending the Juneteenth: Living Liberation Celebration, and I’m hoping to see an even bigger turnout than last year. Because while Juneteenth is the Independence Day for Black people, it is also a celebration of our collective history and culture. It is a chance for the community to come and celebrate the contributions of Black people to our state and our country.