Memory  /  Explainer

The Living History of Juneteenth, Our Next National Holiday

A celebration of emancipation in Texas is taking hold in the minds of Americans everywhere.

As University of North Texas professor Elizabeth Hayes Turner has written, the first Juneteenth celebrations took place as white Texans clung tightly to slavery—a time, as one freedwoman remembered, when “you could see lots of [Black folks] hangin’ to trees in Sabine bottom right after freedom cause they catch ’em swimmin’ cross Sabine River and shoot em’.” Beginning in 1866, Black Texans held public Juneteenth celebrations that included barbecues, parades, church services, communal readings of the Emancipation Proclamation, and the singing of spirituals and songs of jubilee. The event solidified a Black identity rooted in the experience of slavery and freedom. More than a mere claim to citizenship, Juneteenth became a reminder of the day when, as one freedman recalled, “We was all walkin’ on golden clouds.”

The remembrance of that emancipation, the very moment when an unknown future first beckoned, was passed down to subsequent generations. As folklorist William H. Wiggins wrote, Juneteenth was a “red-spot day on the Texas calendar” by the early 20th century. It was “just a second Christmas” in the words of one Black Texan. Every June 19th, families and friends who might as well have been kin gathered in segregated cities and all-Black towns across Texas. Dressed in their Sunday best, they held church services and communal readings of the Emancipation Proclamation. They played baseball and watched rodeos, sang and danced and ate as much red food as they could handle. They gave thanks for freedom and expressed what it meant to be free.

The day was abundant in an era of want. Juneteenth planted firm roots within the racial caste system known as Jim Crow, and it bloomed at the same time as the self-proclaimed sons and daughters of the Confederacy decorated that same Southern landscape with memorials to slavery, thereby planting new seeds of white supremacy. It was a time to reflect on Black progress, but also to remember that the limited version of freedom afforded to African Americans was not what had to be. It was a reenactment of emancipation amid denials that “all slaves were free.”

The Great Migration—the movement of millions of African Americans out of the South to regions of the United States where they might have more jobs, dignity, and physical safety; the grassroots revolt against Jim Crow—helped spread the holiday out of Texas and the surrounding states. In the early and mid-20th century, Black migrants from Texas, Arkansas, and Oklahoma sought work in the shipyards and factories of Los Angeles, Oakland, Seattle, and other booming cities on the West Coast. They brought their traditions. They exported Juneteenth.

By the 1960s, however, the ascendant Civil Rights Movement had dramatized an inherent contradiction of Juneteenth and the various other emancipation anniversaries. What did it mean to celebrate emancipation when African Americans were still fighting for basic civil, political, and even human rights? How and why did an unfree people celebrate getting free?