Sunday, June 21, 2020

Why Juneteenth is a Big Deal

Imagine it is mid May, 1945 and you are a reporter standing in front of Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland recording release of prisoners from the Concentration Camp. You watch as emaciated forms walk under the sign Arbeit Macht Frei, some wobbling alone or on crutches, others walking being supported by one another. As they walk past you hear their conversations. How long were you here? Where did you come from? What do you know about prisoners from other concentration camps? Do you know the names Anne and Margot Frank or Peter Van Daan? It seems to you that the most important thing on these former prisoners' mind is finding out about loved ones lost to them during this terrible period known as The Holocaust, a time in history that will never be forgotten and now taught in all the history books - lest we forget.

Now imagine you are a reporter covering the day on June 19, 1865 when federal soldiers marched into Houston ordering that all people held as slaves in the state of Texas are now and forever free.
You go to a nearby plantation and watch as slaves hear about Emancipation for the first time and begin to understand what that means to them. They are now free to pack up their belongings and leave the plantation to which they have been bound since they were born. They are now able to put any family units back together and go freely to look for other relatives that were sold to other plantations or who ran away. Imagine the joy! This is what freedom means - to travel and go about freely and live in family units just like their masters!

You notice that there is someone in the crowd telling the freed slaves about a gathering in a place in Houston called Freedom Park. The freed slaves look at him in astonishment - you mean we can gather in a public place!  "Yes, so long as you do it peacefully," comes the reply. Freedom - this is what emancipation means.

You get to the park and you notice there are Black people who can read and write who are reading the Emancipation Proclamation and explaining it to the crowd without being hauled away or beaten. A revelation occurs to some - I can learn to read and write.  Freedom! People are coming with food and mingling and talking to one another about relatives and friends. You even see some of your own! Freedom!

There are tables full of traditional foods prepared by female members of the community and set onto tables for the freed slaves to eat - not masters. Freedom! Everyone is singing and dancing for their own enjoyment not for the masters- Freedom!

When the day ends these slaves return to the plantation as free people, they begin to absorb what this freedom means and then start to build a new life, but they do not forget this day. They mark the date June 19, 1865 on a calendar so that no matter where they are in the following years, they will come together with family and friends to mark the day they received their freedom from tyranny the way their white masters did on the 4th of July, but this observance is a little different from that celebration.

In order to understand how the Juneteeth celebration is observed, I attended many celebrations in and around the state of Kentucky from 2015-2019 when I moved from my home state. I also did presentations at the Portland Library on the history of Juneteenth and the long struggle to get the day declared a federal holiday not just an observance day. As I started learning how the day was observed, I decided to write a short story about an adolescent growing up in the Portland Neighborhood of Louisville, Ky. The story is about his coming of age on this day, but it also creates a picture of the Black community in this neighborhood with its roots in slavery and how they celebrate the day. The story is entitled Juneteenth and it is found in my collections of short stories Finding New Pangaea available at It is also available in kindle format.

The observance of Juneteenth follows closely the observance of the original Juneteenth celebration. It is a celebration of family and oftentimes there are large family reunions at state parks in the area. Traditional foods are served and it is just a big family picnic with tables spread with traditional foods and children laughing and playing and reuniting with distant family members or meeting new ones. Education is also a component. Some of the observances of the day are marked by original plays that tell the story of slavery and freedom. For the most part, it is just people having fun enjoying the same freedoms that the white Anglo-Saxon males attained on July 4, 1776. That day is marked by ringing of bells and fireworks displays along with national celebrations in Washington, D.C. with spectacular entertainment by national choruses and the singing of patriotic songs as well as a lot of flag waving and red, white and blue. Just like July 4th Juneteenth is, indeed, a big deal because this day marks the day on which they received all the freedoms listed in the Constitution  just as July 4th marks the day Anglo-Saxon men and other Black freedmen attained the right to self-government and their freedom from absolute monarchies that denied them their rights as English citizens. July 4th was also a landmark day for oppressed people in other countries. It is unfortunate that these Founding Fathers did not include all American citizens at this time. So Juneteeth is a big deal to the African-American communities and just like July 4th the day needs to be at last declared a federal holiday. *

Just like the struggle to get Juneteenth declared a federal holiday, the journey of not only African-Americans, Native Americans, women and other people of color has been long and difficult. In 2020, all of these groups are still held in bondage and prisons and still struggling to get the freedoms listed in the Bill of Rights so the country can live up to the words of the preamble to the Constitution:

          We the People of the United States in order to form a more perfect union,
establish justice. 
provide for the common defense
promote the general welfare,
and secure the blessings of liberty for ourselves and our posterity,
do ordain and establish this Constitution of the United States of America.

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