Although the Emancipation Proclamation was signed in 1862 and became effective January 1, 1863, several Confederate states refused to acknowledge it. Two years later, federal troops arrived in Galveston, TX to enforce the Proclamation. On June 19, 1865, Texas slaves were informed that they were free. Since that date, Juneteenth, as it is now known, has been celebrated throughout the South. In Texas, it has been an official state holiday since 1980.
As a child, my family would attend the annual Juneteenth Celebration in Houston’s Emancipation Park (one of the first pieces of land purchased by free slaves in Houston). Hundreds of families would pile into the park and enjoy the festivities. There was music, food, speeches, fireworks and an atmosphere of unity. The event would culminate with a rousing rendition of the Negro national anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing” by James Weldon Johnson. Listening to all those people singing in unison was an incredible experience. I’m still moved when I hear that song.
When I went away to college in Washington, D.C., I was surprised to discover that most of my classmates didn’t celebrate Juneteenth. In fact, many of them had never heard of it. I tried to explain the significance of that date to them, but they insisted that all slaves were freed immediately after Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. I spent much of my college career attempting to teach my classmates about slavery and American history, without much success.
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I studied my family’s history and discovered that my great-grandparents were slaves. I used to get angry when I thought about the unfairness of them having to endure two extra years of hard labor and brutality after the Emancipation Proclamation. But I’ve learned to let go of that anger and celebrate the richness of my family’s legacy and the advances we’ve made despite the obstacles.
Now that I’m an adult, I take my children to the The Texas Black Expo’s Juneteenth Summer Celebration. This annual event showcases all aspects of African-American culture including entertainment, business, art and history. Last year, we not only learned new aspects of African American history, but we also participated in a huge line dance. It was great to look around the convention center and see hundreds of smiling brown faces celebrating our shared heritage.
Still, I wish that Juneteenth was more widely celebrated, and not just among African Americans. After all, ours is a journey shared with every other American of every color and background, and African Americans, with all Americans, make up the diverse fabric of this nation. So I’ll keep hoping, on this Juneteenth and every single one in the future, to see even more colors mingling and celebrating this important American milestone.