Celebrating Juneteenth: The History Behind The Holiday

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A group of men wade into the ocean as they push a small raft loaded with offerings to their ancestors out to sea Sunday, June 19, 2005 as part a Juneteenth celebration. (Wilfredo Lee/AP)
A group of men wade into the ocean as they push a small raft loaded with offerings to their ancestors out to sea Sunday, June 19, 2005 as part a Juneteenth celebration. (Wilfredo Lee/AP)

With Jane Clayson

Juneteenth is a holiday most Americans have never heard of but should know about. We look at the history and the stories behind the holiday.


Vann Newkirk II, staff writer at The Atlantic. (@fivefifths)

Daina Ramey Berry, professor of History and African and African Diaspora Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. (@DainaRameyBerry)

Adrian Miller, soul food scholar who is currently the Executive Director of the Colorado Council of Churches. Author of "Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time" (2013) (@soulfoodscholar)

Anastasia Pittman, As a state senator, she sponsored legislation that directed the state Department of Education to add Juneteenth to the state’s social studies core curriculum. (@PittmanForLtGov)

Interview Highlights

On the history behind Juneteenth

Berry: "Juneteenth represents the day when enslaved people in the state of Texas were finally informed that they had been freed after the end of the Civil War. Some people talk about this as being two years too late, because they think about the Emancipation Proclamation, which was issued by Lincoln, for Jan. 1 of 1863. And that proclamation stated that all enslaved people in the states of rebellion would be free if they had not come back to the Union. Enslaved people in Texas did not learn of their freedom until June 19, and that's why we celebrate it on this day."

On the deeper meaning of the holiday

Newkirk: "Juneteenth is a perfect distillation of what it means to be African American. It starts as a Texas holiday, but it's exported throughout the country, merged with lots of local emancipation customs, it becomes the largest emancipation holiday in the U.S. in pretty short order. That's part of the great migration. You have this history of movement that has been central to the black story in America.

"Liberation is always something that is delayed. It's always on the horizon, there's always something else left to do."

Vann Newkirk

"I think it should be considered the truth of American independence. July 4 only represents when white men in this country were made free. If you think about the masses, Juneteenth represents the true fulfillment of what people believe to be that declaration, and what people believe to be freedom in this country.

"The main lesson of the holiday is: Liberation is always something that is delayed. It's always on the horizon, there's always something else left to do. This is something that we should be considering today."

On how people celebrate Juneteenth

Newkirk: "There's no one right way to celebrate Juneteenth. We just talked about people reading the declarations, reading the proclamations. ... If you go to Jamaica, you'll see people reading their declaration of emancipation and independence as a hallmark of liberation. So all these things together, I think, are components of not just a black American story, but a globally black story."

Miller: "In addition to celebrating the news, and slavery ending, it became a communal celebration, and food was prominent. When you think of Juneteenth, most people think of BBQ, red drink (and I believe that red Kool-Aid is the official soul food drink, but in Texas they usually have Big Red soda) and watermelon and other things. As Juneteenth has spread across the country, those foods have traveled with it and associated with the celebration.

"We have two ancestral red drinks that come across the Atlantic during the Atlantic slave trade from West Africa, and you've probably had both of them. One is cola — cola nuts are either white or reddish, and also hibiscus, which is a flower native to west Africa. So people would often make drinks using the nuts or the flower petals to color the drink or sweeten it to taste. And that's the same basic formula of Kool-Aid."

From The Reading List

The Atlantic: "The Quintessential Americanness of Juneteenth (From 2017)" — "It is both a second Independence Day and a reminder of ongoing oppression and continuing forms of stricture. It is a memorial to the dead and a remonstrance to those who killed them. It is a clear articulation of the fact that America can never be free until her people are free, and a celebration of the people who have worked to make it so. Juneteenth is the purest distillation of the evils that still plague America, and a celebration of the good people who fought those evils. It is tragedy and comedy, hope and setbacks.

As a national holiday, Juneteenth, immersed as it is both in the canon of old history and in the ongoing struggle for civil rights, would be the only one that celebrates liberty in America as it actually is: delayed."

Houston Chronicle: "Juneteenth in Houston: Parade, prayer and a sense of urgency" --"Juneteenth is forever embedded in the history of this corner of Texas.

On June 18, 1865, Union forces arrived in Galveston and the following day Gen. Gordon Granger stood on the balcony of Ashton Villa and read General Order No. 3, a proclamation freeing Texas slaves nearly three years after President Abraham Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation. A spontaneous celebration filled the streets in the port city and spread to Houston as more than 1,000 slaves were suddenly freed. Texas was the first to establish Juneteenth as a state holiday in 1980.

Also Saturday, a separate celebration was held in Houston’s Emancipation Park. It is a park central to the Juneteenth narrative because in 1872 it became the first piece of land to be purchased by African-Americans in Texas. At that time, the Rev. Jack Yates led a group of residents, including former slaves from the Third and Fourth wards, who raised $1,000 to buy the 10-acre property."

Look at your calendar and you’ll see today is not just June 19th, it’s Juneteenth. The holiday marks the 1865 proclamation of the freedom of slaves in Texas. But what started as a small celebration in the lone star state is now a holiday recognized in 45 states, celebrated with red cola, barbecue and live music. It represents liberation, freedom, and hope for the way forward.

This hour, On Point: the history and the stories behind Juneteenth.

- Jane Clayson

This program aired on June 19, 2018.


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