Juneteenth memories

Juneteenth is our first African American holiday. But it almost did not happen. The word Juneteenth is colloquial phrasing for an approximate June date when enslaved African Americans in Texas learned that they were free. June 19, 2015 marks the 150th anniversary of Juneteenth, also known in Texas as Emancipation Day. But like many black folks, I knew nothing about it growing up in New York. I learned about Juneteenth as an adult while living in Oakland during the eighties.

With the huge African American population that migrated from Texas and Louisiana to the Bay Area, Juneteenth was widely celebrated, especially in Oakland and Berkeley. I remember house parties and block parties everywhere back then! I could not keep up with the month-long festivities!

'One-Way Ticket: Jacob Lawrence's Migration Series' at MoMA
‘One-Way Ticket: Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series’ at MoMA

As I remember it, Juneteenth was highlighted by food, especially barbecue and Gumbo. Events were held in private homes and backyards of friends and neighbors. That was where I was introduced to deeper understandings about African American food legacy and regional culinary traditions. Folks cooked with recipes passed down from slavery. It seemed like everyone had ‘secret ingredients’ for gumbo. And talk about barbecue! Folks would talk about their sauce and meat preparation like religion. These discussions fueled fierce local cooking competitions or ‘throw-downs’ years before the Cooking Channel TV shows existed. I remember folks sharing stories about their legendary grandmothers, aunts and uncles who were great cooks, their original recipes and cooking techniques.

Gumbo fixings
Gumbo fixings

“Everybody knows Texans make the best barbecue!” Somebody would always make that controversial statement. Heated dialogue would ensue. What fun! What pride! Celebrants would passionately speak about how they prepped, brined, rubbed or smoked their meat and various ways to create delicious sauce. These epic food stories would go on year after year.

I also recall Juneteenth celebrants’ love of Blues music. There was a popular Blues venue in Berkeley where B. B. King often played. I don’t recall exact names but I used to go to blues clubs back then. So, Juneteenth was definitely a holiday marked with a Texas flavor of Black American culture– food, music, dance, art, crafts, theater, poetry, and Afrocentric fashion and designs.

Although US President Abraham Lincoln ended slavery after the Civil War by signing the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, (two years before Juneteenth) over 200,000 African Americans remained enslaved in Texas, a Confederate stronghold. Some slaveholders moved their slaves to Texas to avoid setting them free. It took a special decree (General Order 3) and 2000 Union (Federal) troops to make freedom happen. That’s how Juneteenth was born.

African American Civil War soldiers
African American Civil War soldiers

I believe that many of the African Americans in Texas probably knew that they were free, but would not take any risks to prove it. Word traveled too quick in our ‘grapevine’ back then for them to not know something so important. January 1, the day that the Emancipation Proclamation took effect, should be our official Emancipation Day. Click here for a link to my story about ‘Waiting for the Hour,” artwork that hangs in the White House today. It tells our pivotal history. “Watch Night,” a New Year’s Eve tradition, is a spiritual holiday celebrated in many African American churches. But few realize the connection to the end of slavery.

As a child, I celebrated a Caribbean-style Emancipation Day with my West Indian relatives during August. British slavery, also known as the Transatlantic Trade, ended about 30 years before American slavery ended. On August 28, 1834, slavery ended in the British Empire, including its Caribbean colonies. Today, Emancipation Day is celebrated widely throughout the West Indies with summertime Carnival events.

Here are my Top 5 Juneteenth Things to Do:

  1. Read about Frederick Douglass, New York and how the end of slavery was celebrated: When the Civil War ended in April of 1865, the racial hostilities that fueled New York’s draft riots two years earlier still smoldered. Amid preparations for Abraham Lincoln’s funeral procession to pass through the city, the Common Council (now City Council) initially prohibited blacks from participating in the grand parade.” Read more by clicking here.
  2. Celebrate in Brooklyn, Sunday, June 14: The Fort Greene Brooklyn Juneteenth Arts Festival is coming to Cuyler Gore Park, Sunday, June 14th, 2015. All-day entertainment will be highlighted by music, dance, poetry, drama, Spoken word, and comedy. Check the website or on facebook.
  1. Black Ancestry webinar, Friday, June 19: The Great Migration of Black folks out of Texas to the West Coast caused the holiday to spread. We all know how difficult it continues to be to find and document African American ancestral records. My friend Sharon Morgan’s Black Ancestry site will sponsor a free webinar in honor of Juneteenth set for Friday, June 19. Records of the Antebellum Southern Plantation is accessible via computer or mobile phone. Click here for more information and to register.
  1. Celebrate in Texas: In case you did not know, Texas is like a separate country! Texas Emancipation Day is a huge holiday there. My white Texan Smith College schoolmates reminded me recently that they celebrated Juneteenth for decades! In fact, the Texas holiday became so respected—bigger than July 4th, that it was common for white politicians to join in annual celebrations that often drew crowds of thousands. “In 1872, a group of African American ministers in Houston helped raise money from the community to purchase a 10-acre plot of land in the Third Ward, which they named Emancipation Park. It has served as the cultural center of the city’s African American community, and the site of Juneteenth celebrations, ever since.“Blacks would come from all over,” said singer Kijana Wiseman, the chair of this month’s celebration. “People would dress up in their finery, they would dance, and there were bands and music. It was a real gala affair.”  To read the full article, click here.
  1. Read about Ralph Ellison’s book Juneteenth. It received mixed reviews. But the story about how the book came to be published deserves our attention. Click here for a link to a newspaper clip.

Do you celebrate Juneteenth?


4 thoughts on “Juneteenth memories

  1. I learn something new everyday. I honestly did not know what this meant. While I have heard the term Juneteenth, I just didn’t know the history behind it and shame on me that I did not take the time to research it. Thanks for sharing this bit of education.

    Frantastically yours,

    1. Hi Frances, Thank you for your kind words. Yes, many of us are still learning about Juneteenth!

  2. Sylvia,
    This is Excellent! I have celebrated Juneteenth when I lived in Houston with my children. I loved to retrace our historic steps and remember just how far we have come even though the road ahead is still long. It’s a holiday I need to revisit in Atlanta. Now more than ever – remembering the past empowers the future.



    1. Hi Elle, Thank you for stopping by. So glad to hear that you celebrated Juneteenth in Texas! Let me know how it goes in Atlanta

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