Center for Interfaith Cooperation

Hoosiers of Many Faiths in Community

Juneteenth and Joy

The original Juneteenth was two and a half centuries of suppressed happiness finally allowed spontaneous expression. I wish I’d been there, and I’ll bet you do too.

Juneteenth may be the greatest holiday you’ve never heard of. Commemorating the end of slavery, Juneteenth reminds all of us that freedom matters, and to create a better society we must work – and play – together.

Juneteenth was born in Galveston on June 19, 1865, when Gen. Gordon Granger of the occupying Union Army proclaimed:

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.

Aware that the war had ended with the South’s defeat in April, whites greeted the decree with stony silence. For blacks, however, the announcement that they were free was news. Their masters hadn’t gotten around to telling them about Abraham Lincoln’s “Emancipation Proclamation” two and a half years earlier. Observers described an outburst of cheers and whoops, crying and dancing that spread across the city. Said one newly liberated woman, “We all walked down the road singing and shouting to beat the band.”

America’s slavery was particularly barbaric because it gave no rights or legal protection to slave families. Owners could sell their “property” with no regard to connections of kinship or love. Thus within weeks many of Galveston’s ex-slaves had left the region, setting off to search for long-separated sons and daughters, parents and spouses.

But first they partied.

While their former masters cringed behind locked doors, awaiting the eruption of (what many have considered well-deserved) vengeance that never came, the newly freed slaves celebrated outdoors for days. Story-telling contests, feasts unlike anything they had tasted, story-telling contests, marathons of song and dance … it was two and a half centuries of suppressed happiness finally allowed spontaneous expression. I wish I’d been there, and I’ll bet you do too.

Calling Juneteenth the “African American Independence Day” reminds us that even though the country was founded with the bold proclamation that “all men are created equal,” a quarter of those who signed the Declaration of Independence in 1776 were slave-owners. For the people they called “property,” the Fourth of July was not much different from the Third.

Don’t think, however, only African Americans have a right or reason to celebrate their Independence Day. Slavery poisoned and perverted the nation’s values. Justice and equality before the law imply that none of us are free unless all of us are free. Thus the destruction of this evil system liberated all Americans, and Juneteenth deserves to be celebrated joyfully by everyone, black and white (and yellow and brown). It goes deeper than this, even. In his great posthumously published novel, Juneteenth, Ralph Ellison writes that blacks and whites in America are bound by “some cord of kinship stronger and deeper than blood or hate or heartbreak.”

For decades in Texas and the South, as Jim Crow restrictions increasingly barred them from public and civil life, African Americans reasserted their emancipation with grand Juneteenth festivities. These elaborate traditions vanished a bit with the Great Migration north and with the real (albeit incomplete) achievements of the civil rights movement.

Neglecting this holiday today would be a shame. Juneteenth gives us all an opportunity to reflect on America’s future as well as its past. Again, to quote Ellison: “There’s been a heap of Juneteenths before this one, and I tell you there’ll be a heap more before we’re truly free!” We don’t need a few hate-filled bigots to remind us 154 years after Gen. Granger’s Galveston proclamation that race remains our country’s great unhealed wound.

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