Juneteenth is the oldest known celebration commemorating the ending of slavery in the United States. Dating back to 1865, it was on June 19th that the Union Soldiers, led by Major General Gordon Granger, landed at Galveston, Texas with news that the war had ended and that the enslaved were now free. Note that this was two and a half years after President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation-which had become official January 1, 1863. The Emancipation Proclamation had little impact on Texas due to the minimal number of Union troops to enforce the new Executive order. However, with the surrender of General Lee in April of 1865, and the arrival of General Granger's regiment, the forces were finally strong enough to influence and overcome the resistance. Later, attempts to explain this two and a half year delay in the receipt of this important news have yielded several versions that have been handed down through the years. All or none of the stories could be true. For whatever the reason, conditions in Texas remained status quo well beyond what was statutory.
A range of activities was provided to entertain the masses, many of which continue in tradition today. Rodeos, fishing, barbecuing, and baseball, are just a few of the typical Juneteenth activities you may witness today. Juneteenth almost always focused on self-improvement and education. Thus often guest speakers are brought in and the elders are called upon to recount the events of the past. Prayer services were also a major part of the celebrations.
Certain foods became popular and subsequently synonymous with the celebration, such as strawberry soda-pop. More traditional and just as popular was the barbecuing. This was through which participants could share in the spirit and aromas that their ancestors would have enjoyed during the ceremonies. Hence, the barbecue pit is often established as the center of attention at Juneteenth celebrations. Dress was also an important element in early Juneteenth customs, and is often taken seriously, particularly by the direct descendants who can make the connection to this tradition's roots.
In some cases in the early years, there was an outright resistance, and people would bar the use of public property for the festivities. Most of the festivities found themselves out in rural areas around rivers and creeks that would provide for additional activities such as fishing, horseback riding, and barbecues. Often, the church grounds were the sites for the festivities.
On January 1, 1980, Juneteenth became an official holiday in Texas, through the efforts of Al Edwards, an African American state legislator. The successful passage of this bill marked Juneteenth as the first emancipation celebration granted official state recognition.
Thursday, April 11, 2002, Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack (D-IA) signed legislation establishing Juneteenth as a state holiday in Iowa. The holiday will be known as Juneteenth National Freedom Day.
Juneteenth symbolizes the end of slavery, and symbolizes for many African-Americans, what the Fourth of July symbolizes for all Americans. For Americans that is freedom. While blacks celebrate the Fourth of July in honor of American Independence Day, history reminds us that blacks were still enslaved when the United States gained its independence.
Juneteenth in Iowa
Iowa is the seventh state to officially recognize Juneteenth. The Iowa Juneteenth Observance encompasses a statewide scope of programming that spans an eight-day period and focuses on education and entertainment activities related to freedom, liberty, and responsible citizenship. Activities feature family fun and economic/political/and social development.
The Iowa Juneteenth Observance has been operating since 1990. To find out more information, visit www.iowajuneteenth.com