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Juneteenth: Freedom Day

As today is Juneteenth, we thought it would be a good time to help everyone learn about the newest American holiday.

The History of Freedom

The first Watch Night services occurred on “Freedom’s Eve,” or the eve of January 1, 1863. On that night, enslaved and free African Americans gathered in churches and private homes all across the country, awaiting news that the Emancipation Proclamation had taken effect. At midnight, prayers were answered as all enslaved people in the Confederate States were declared legally free. With that declaration, many African Americans took it as a sign that the time to free themselves from enslavement was now. Some plotted escapes to the North, and others waited in anticipation for the Union forces to come close so they could seek protection. Eventually, Union soldiers, many of whom were Black, marched on plantations and across cities in the South, spreading the news of freedom. However, it wasn’t until the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution passed that emancipation became law and chattel slavery ended in the United States.

Not everyone in Confederate territory would immediately be free. Even though the Emancipation Proclamation was effective in 1863, it could not be enforced in places still under Confederate control. As a result, in the Confederate state of Texas, enslaved people would not be free until much later. Freedom finally came on June 19, 1865, when some 2,000 Union troops arrived in Galveston Bay, Texas. The army announced that the more than 250,000 enslaved black people in the state were free by executive decree. June 19th came to be known as “Juneteenth” by the newly freed people in Texas. 

Post-Emancipation

During Reconstruction (1865-1877), the post-emancipation period marked an era of great hope, uncertainty, and struggle for the nation. The formerly enslaved immediately sought to reunify families, establish schools, run for political office, push radical legislation, and even sue slaveholders for compensation. Given the 200+ years of enslavement, such changes were nothing short of amazing. Not even a generation out of slavery, African Americans were inspired and empowered to transform their lives and their country.

Juneteenth: A Celebration and a Legacy

June 19, 1865, became known as #Juneteenth, now officially a federal holiday. Juneteenth: Freedom Day is considered a second independence day for African Americans. Although it has long been celebrated by Blacks in the South and Southwest, this monumental event remains unknown outside the African American community.

The historical legacy of Juneteenth shows the value of never giving up hope in uncertain times. Juneteenth celebrations and ceremonies create a community space where this spirit of hope lives on. Today, it represents hope, resilience, and the ongoing fight for social justice.

The Symbolism of Red

Red is the color of resilience. Each year, when my family celebrates Juneteenth, their flyers boldly request that each guest bring something “Red.” We then add examples, like red soda pop, watermelon, apples, or even red beans. Folks bring these items without much thinking about their origin. The roots of the symbolic efficacy of the color red can be traced to West Africa, where it has been associated with strength, spirituality, life, and death. Furthermore, culinary historians trace the color to certain foods that traveled to the Americas and the Africans during the trans-Atlantic slave trade, such as hibiscus and the kola nut.

So, this year at Juneteenth, as you take a long swallow from a cool drink of hibiscus iced tea or red punch, remember the ancestors who sacrificed, remember the bloodshed in the struggle, remember the collective strength of people of the African diaspora, and finally remember the spirituality and transcendent joy that enabled us to overcome.

A Call to Action

Don’t miss this unique opportunity in our community to engage directly with critical social justice issues impacting the African American community over a meal that pays homage to our ancestors’ journey toward freedom.

Reserve your seat at the table for a night of reflection, dialogue, and celebration.

Learning Resources

These resources are intended to support you as you dive deeper into the origins and meaning of this important holiday, on your own or with students:

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