Ain't no more Juneteenth like it used to be; When Abe Lincoln writ a letter settin all the black folks free. Ain't no more big picnincs, by the riverside, Whdre we sang "Swing Low Sweet Chariot" 'Til we all broke down and cried.
Juneteenth--the Southwestern emancipation celebration that is now celebrated by African Americans in all regions of the United States--has been making a slow but steady comeback since its decline in the 1940s. The celebrating is said to have begun on June 19, 1865, when General Gordon Granger landed at Galveston, Texas, with a regiment of Union Army soldiers and read General Order Number 3, which began with two memorable sentences: "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 rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and free laborer."
That historical pronouncement inspired the newly freed ex-slaves to coin a nickname for their cause for celebration--a blend of the words "June" and "nineteenth"--and to create several legends that explain the 2 1/2-year delay in the arrival of the news of emancipation in Texas. "My 86-year-old father swears that an ex-Union soldier (Negro) rode a mule from Washington, with a message given him by Abe Lincoln, yessuh, all the way to this section of the country," wrote Haywood Hygh Jr., who now resides in Compton, Calif. "And when he got to Oklahoma, he informed the slaves that they were free. From the there he went to Arkansas and Texas. It was the 19th of June when he arrived in Oklahoma."
The stories that Juneteenth celebrants tell vary. For example, Francis Stroup of Chicago contends that Juneteenth celebrants like Hygh's father, "who attributed the delay in receiving the word to slow travel on mule back, are at odds with the conventional wisdom in Texas, which holds that the message came by boat to Galveston and was diffused from there."
Another legend tells the tale of a messenger who was murdered on his way to Texas. Yet another claims that federal troops waited for slave owners to reap the benefits of one last cotton harvest before going to Texas to enforce the Emancipation Proclamation.
If nothing else, the legends are indicative of the wide geographical spread of Juneteenth celebrations, and the tradition has always been strongest in Texas. Juneteenth is observed in the southeastern Texas cities of Galveston and Orange, up to the northeastern region, in such towns as Texarkana and Sherman. Big Juneteenth celebrations are also held in Fort Worth, Dallas and Houston. In 1872, the Rev. Jack Yates led a successful $1,000 fund-raising drive to purchase Emancipation Park, 10 acres of land located a few miles from downtown Houston. In 1898 the local 19th of June Organization purchased Booker T. Washington Park, another traditional Juneteenth celebration site, located in Mexia, near Waco, Texas.
Rupert Secrett of Brenham, Texas, recalls the friendly "hurrahing" between Juneteenth celebrants in Texas and Louisiana: "The people in Lousiana didn't know they was free until the people from Texas came over and told 'em." Southwestern Arkansas is another area into which the Juneteenth tradition spilled over.
Juneteenth began its expansion beyond Texas, Louisiana and Arkansas soon after its initial celebrations. In the 1800s a significant number of ex-slaves, driven by the collapse of Reconstruction, carried the cultural baggage of Juneteenth along with their meager possessions when they migrated out of the tristate area into the Western territories in search of a fresh start. As they made their homes in areas that would eventually become the states of Oklahoma, Kansas and Colorado, they established new Juneteenth celebration sites.
Elva S. Riggins described in a letter one of the new Juneteenth celebrations that she attended as a little girl growing up in Muskogee, Okla.: "The |town folks' celebrated by coming out into the rural areas, preferably by a creek, where they could fish and picnic in a shaded area. (We had no access to public parks.) We always had a 5-gallon freezer of store-bought ice cream, and Mama baked huge layer cakes, blackberry cobblers, fried chicken, and we boiled corn in a huge, black wash-pot. Picnic lunches were usually the fried-chicken-potato-salad-light-bread-and-pink-lemonade-in-jugs affairs. Beverages ranged from red soda-pop (a brand known as Knee-High was very popular), |bootleg' whiskey in fruit-jars, and |home-brew.' I seem to recall an intoxicant that was not aged as long as |home-brew'; it was called |Sister-get-you-ready'!
"Unfortunately, June 20th found our community buzzing with gossip--|Who got stabbed with an icepick?' or news of someone else up with a straight-edge razor or knife known as a |Dallas Special.'"
The second western mass migration of African Americans from the three original Juneteenth-celebrating states, into Arizona, California and Washington, was triggered by their flight from the Great Depression of the 1930s and their attraction to high-paying jobs during the World War II era.
The observance of Juneteenth began to decline soon after the war. William H. Ammons, a World War II veteran, cites the spirit of patriotism as the reason many of his peers no longer participated in the celebration. "The younger generation of blacks have been taught that they're a part of this country and that the Fourth of July is the day for them to celebrate because this is the day that America gained her independence from England."
It took 20 years and political actions spawned by the civil rights movement to revive Juneteenth celebrations. Juneteenth freedom buttons were worn by student demonstrators participating in the Atlanta civil rights campaign of the early 1960s, but the most significant political vehicle to carry the celebrations to other regions of America was the Poor People's March to Washington, D.C., in 1968. Sterling Tucker, a Washington, D.C., political leader, fashioned this "Solidarity Day" along the lines of the 1963 March on Washington, and more than 25,000 Americans responded to Poor People's March leader the Rev. Ralph David Abernathy's call for "people (from all regions, urban and rural, of all creeds, races and minorities, and from all economic levels and professions) to come to Washington to show their support of the poor." Some of those Solidarity Day celebrants returned home and instituted Juneteenth celebrations of their own.
During the next few years, celebrations sprang up in such nontraditional Eastern cities as Washington, D.C., Buffalo, N.Y., and Brooklyn, N.Y. The two largest Juneteenth celebrations founded after the Solidarity Day event are held in Milwaukee and Minneapolis. The Milwaukee Courier described the 1978 event as "the biggest day of the year," drawing more than 100,000 people and attracting such sponsors as the city of Milwaukee, Milwaukee County and the Social Development Commission. In 1985, Juneteenth in Minneapolis drew an estimated 2,500 participants.
African Americans' search for cultural identity has become the latest reason for the steady increase in Juneteenth's popularity during the last two decades of the 20th century. In 1979, Al Edwards, an African-American state legislator from Houston, introduced and successfully passed House Bill Number 1016 through the Texas Legislature, thereby making Juneteenth the first and only emancipation celebration to be accorded official state recognition. Representative Edwards' bill, which was approved on June 7, 1979, and became a part of the Texas law on January 1, 1980, reads in part: "The 19th day of June ... of each year, and every day on which an election is held throughout the state, are declared legal holidays. ... The 19th day of June is designated |Emancipation Day in Texas' in honor of the emancipation of the slaves in Texas on June 19, 1865." Since Governor William P. Clements signed this historic bill into law, Representative Edwards has actively sought to revitalize the observance of the celebration in Texas as well as to spread Juneteenth observances into all regions of the United States.
During the 1980s a growing number of AMerican and African-American cultural institutions including the Smithsonian Institution's NAtional Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., the Chicago Historical Society, the Black Archives of Mid-America Inc. in Kansas City, Mo., th Los Angeles Cultural Center, the Henry Ford Museum & Greenfield Village in Detroit, and the Museum of African-American Life and Culture in Dallas, have begun to sponsor Juneteenth-based cultural events designed to share knowledge of this celebration with all Americans.
As the tradition of Juneteenth continues to spread, so does a greater appreciation of African-American history. in 1983, Missouri Congressman Alan Wheat read the following justification for these cultural events into the Congressional Record: "Juneteenth Day' festivals are a time for genuine celebration among blacks across our Nation. When blacks from Africa were brought to America as slaves, we not only shackled their bodies, we also shackled their potential. We are fortunate, however, that blacks would not let their souls and ambitions be bound. Although we cannot compensate for past injustices, we must continue to strive for total equality. |Juneteenth' celebrations are a tribute to those black Americans who fought so long and worked so hard to make the dream of equality a reality."
Even the trendy New York City paper the Village Voice recognized a "Juneteenth renaissance" in its 1992 report that Juneteenth "has become in recent years not just a hootenanny for black Texas (to use the condescending folksy portrait favored by the local press), but a holiday eagerly adopted nationwide by African Americans in search of cultural signposts." In light of this current, yet uncrested, wave of cultural interest among African Americans, is it any wonder why these simple Juneteenth celebrations remain red-letter days in the African-American calendar some 130 years since the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation?
William H. Wiggins Jr., a professor of Afro-American studies and folklore at Indiana University, Bloomington, is the author of O Freedom!: Afro-American Emancipation Celebrations (University of Tennessee Press, 1987).…