I confess that until I became a bishop I had never heard about Juneteenth! My knowledge of African American history was sorely lacking, and I certainly am not the only one. Here is some background information found in an article from the PBS network’s local WHYY affiliate. (The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross with Henry Louis Gates, Jr.)
On June 19, 1865, the following declaration was made: “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 personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages…”
President Abraham Lincoln had issued The Emancipation Proclamation 2½ years before that on January 1, 1863. This ended slavery in the Confederacy, and in the interim nearly 200,000 Black men had enlisted to fight for the Union Army in the Civil War.
Many slave owners in Mississippi, Louisiana and other points east had been migrating to Texas to escape the Union Army’s reach and they took 150,000 slaves with them.
The June 19, 1865, announcement was read aloud that day to slaves in south Texas by a U.S. Army general. But it did not bring about an instant change for all of the state’s 250,000 former slaves. Many were forced to keep working until the harvest came, and some were not even told. Still others were lynched or shot for exercising their new freedom.
The nation’s Freedmen’s Aid Bureau was further delayed in coming to Texas to help new black citizens adjust to freedom until September of 1865. Yet, despite the confusion, delays, exploitation, violence and even murders they had to endure, the newly freed Black men and women of Texas finally had a date to rally around. Thus began in 1866 the annual celebration of “Juneteenth,” also known as Jubilee Day and Freedom Day.
It was a day to gather family together and teach younger generations about the values of self-sufficiency and pride. At these events there were religious services, singing, food (always a barbecue pit), games, and rodeos. Black people gathered near rivers and lakes at first, but eventually they raised enough money to buy their own celebration sites.
In 1979 Texas became the first state to make Juneteenth an official holiday. Since then 41 other states and the District of Columbia have recognized this as a state holiday or holiday observance. Pennsylvania just recognized it in 2019.
Juneteenth is an opportunity not only to celebrate freedom but also to speak out about injustice. Today more than ever we need to speak out against white privilege, racism, law enforcement brutality, mass incarceration, voter suppression, poor educational and health care opportunities, and the continual segregation of our schools and churches. We all need to stand together to make real changes happen, and we cannot let this moment pass.
I am grateful for all I have learned on my journey as a bishop, thanks to many patient people who have taught me along the way. I still have a long way to go. Please join me on that journey.