For many Americans, the Fourth of July is a holiday that celebrates independence and freedom. But many Black Americans don’t feel that the Fourth of July truly celebrates their freedom.
Slaves were not officially freed until June 19, 1865, almost 90 years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776. June 19, commonly referred to as Juneteenth, celebrates the official ending of slavery for Black Americans. Despite its cultural significance, most Americans don’t know the history behind Juneteenth and how it is celebrated. To answer questions about the holiday, Vox asked Columbia residents and teachers to provide some insight about Juneteenth's history and what it means to celebrate it.
What does Juneteenth celebrate?
Juneteenth celebrates the day that the last slaves were freed in Galveston, Texas, about two and a half years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. On June 19, 1865, federal troops arrived in Texas and General Gordon Granger announced that the state’s 250,000 slaves were free. Texas didn’t have a large presence of Union troops during the war, which allowed slavery to continue for years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, according to History.com.
“It's not like Lincoln snapped his fingers and then all the slaves were magically freed,” says Austin Reed, social studies department chair at Rock Bridge High School.
Freed slaves organized Texas’s first “Jubilee Day,” the following year on June 19 to commemorate their liberation, according to History.com. As free Black Americans moved away from Texas, they brought the tradition of celebrating Juneteenth with food, music and prayer with them.
Is the history of Juneteenth taught in schools?
Reed says that Juneteenth is not specifically mentioned in the curriculum for Rock Bridge High School’s U.S. studies class. “A kid would hear about Juneteenth probably in a larger lesson on Reconstruction when we're talking about what the Emancipation Proclamation is,” he says.
Stephen Graves, director of undergraduate studies and assistant professor in MU's Black studies department, spends about a week in his classes teaching about Juneteenth and its cultural context. He says he believes that Black history and the Black perspective are overlooked in American K-12 education, resulting in people, including himself, not learning about Juneteenth until they reach higher education or adulthood.
“For so long in this country through education, students and teachers have been conditioned to think that Black history isn't all that valuable and doesn't have much of a contribution to make,” Graves says.
Is Juneteenth a national holiday?
Juneteenth is not currently a national holiday, but 47 out of 50 states, including Missouri, have declared it a state holiday. Some people, including Columbia resident Adonica Coleman, have encouraged their cities to declare Juneteenth a local holiday.
Coleman is hosting a Juneteenth celebration in Columbia this year at which Mayor Brian Treece will sign a proclamation that declares Juneteenth a recognized local holiday.
How do people celebrate Juneteenth?
Coleman's local Juneteenth celebration, called Como Celebrates Juneteenth, is open to the public. The first portion of the event will be a socially distanced opening ceremony in the parking lot and field next to Karis Church. Guests can pick up pre-ordered t-shirts and soul food from local vendors and hear from a few guest speakers. The rest of the event will take place online through educational videos about Juneteenth and Black history on the event’s Facebook page.
While some people celebrate with their community, many Black families celebrate at home. Years prior to organizing her Juneteenth event, Coleman honored the holiday at home by hosting cookouts that felt similar to Black family reunions. Graves also celebrates Juneteenth through traditional family customs such as making soul food, listening to old-school music and praying together. “We use it as an empowering time to really talk and reflect about our culture and our history,” Graves says.
Can I celebrate Juneteenth if I’m not Black?
Coleman says she welcomes people of all backgrounds to attend her event and celebrate Juneteenth. She says she believes that if Americans from different cultures begin to celebrate the holiday, it will become the norm.
Columbia resident Sara Gay says she learned about Juneteenth through Coleman, and her family began celebrating it last year despite not being part of the Black community. Gay is volunteering at the Como Celebrates Juneteenth event this year.
Graves agrees that ideally, people of all cultures in the U.S. would celebrate Juneteenth, but recognizes that the holiday is particularly special for him and other Black Americans.
“It would be nice if whites and other cultures celebrated Juneteenth as part of the American tradition," he says. "But it's more important that we honor it and that we celebrate it."
How can I educate myself and others about Juneteenth?
Coleman says it’s helpful for parents to talk to their children about the history of Juneteenth. “The kids don't know and they certainly don't hear about it at school, and so it's up to us to talk to them about those things,” Coleman says.
Graves recommends reading Carter G. Woodson's The Mis-Education of the Negro to gain perspective on why Black history is overlooked in schools and the effect this has on the Black community. Gay says that she hopes more white Americans proactively read books about racism in America and through that, learn more about Juneteenth.
“I still have a lot to learn,” Gay says. “I have actively sought out books to read about the African American experience and racism in America, and so I think having that background as context motivates me to want to celebrate Juneteenth.”