One of our most important and popular annual celebrations of freedom is still not a federally recognized holiday. It’s time to change that.
On June 19, 1865, two and a half years after Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, Union general Gordon Granger read federal orders in Galveston, Texas. All previously enslaved people in Texas — the last remaining enslaved people in the United States — were now free.
Despite the announcement — not to mention the two and a half year old law abolishing slavery — freedom still eluded many Black Americans. Some who pursued their freedom after the declaration were shot or hung. Others continued to be forced into enslaved labor.
Nevertheless, “Defying confusion and delay, terror and violence, the newly ‘freed’ black men and women of Texas, with the aid of the Freedmen’s Bureau, now had a date to rally around. In one of the most inspiring grassroots efforts of the post-Civil War period, they transformed June 19 from a day of unheeded military orders into their own annual rite, ‘Juneteenth,’ beginning one year later in 1866,” writes Henry Louis Gates Jr.
Now, 155 years since Granger’s order, as the overwhelming evidence of police brutality and voter suppression targeted at Black people shows, the country still has a long journey toward full freedom and equality for Black Americans. That’s why millions of people the world over, from cities to rural towns, have peacefully voiced their solidarity throughout the month with one idea that has eluded the American criminal justice system for so long: Black Lives Matter.
As a result of this uprising, more people are paying homage to Juneteenth this year. Twitter, Nike, the NFL, and Square all recently announced it’d be a company holiday. But for many, it’s long been one of the most important and popular celebrations of freedom in the country, annually enjoyed with red punch and cookouts (the Times has a round-up of great Juneteenth recipes).
It’s time it’s finally recognized as a federally observed holiday.
Opal Lee knows that. When she was a child, a white mob burned down her home after her family moved to a white neighborhood. The 93-year-old Forth Worth, Texas, civil rights activist has dedicated her life to supporting the celebration.
Now, every Juneteenth, she walks 2.5-miles — the number of years it took for enslaved people in Texas to be included in the Emancipation Proclamation — to raise awareness (this year, a socially-distanced caravan will join her in lieu of other walkers). Forty-six states honor Juneteenth, but it is still not a federal day of observance — a list that includes Loyalty Day and Columbus Day.
Lee envisions a nationwide celebration of freedom kicking off with Juneteenth and ending with the 4th of July. She believes a federal embrace of Juneteenth could help reckon with America’s past, while unifying the country.
“It’s not a black thing. It’s not a Texas thing,” said Lee recently, via Zoom. “There have been so many people from various walks of life that helped slaves get free. And we need to acknowledge that.”
Lee, who says she’d be out there protesting with everyone else if she wasn’t so old, believes that making Juneteenth a national day of observance will start other necessary conversations.
“Public acknowledgement is necessary. We have to get people aware,” said Lee. “Get it on the cotton pickin’ calendar and then we can address some of the other things that need to be done.”
Lee asks for support by signing a petition or through donations and letters to senators advocating for Juneteenth as a national day of observance.
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