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Juneteenth Observance Marks 142nd Anniversary of the Formal End of US Slavery

Today’s observance of Juneteenth marks the oldest known celebration of the end of slavery in the United States. America’s civil war had ended at Appomattox, Virginia in April, 1865. But on June 19, 1865, two and a half years after President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, the news finally reached Galveston, Texas: masters could no longer consider slaves their private property. The latter were free to leave the plantation to seek their own livelihoods. That message, sounded by an army major general, sparked celebrations in Galveston, and in Louisiana, Arkansas, and Oklahoma. Observances later spread to the industrial cities, as African-Americans began migrating north. Dr. Ronald Myers is founder and president of the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation, which is seeking to make June 19th festivities a national holiday. He explains how Juneteenth’s popularity continues to thrive.

“It all began in Texas with the landing of Gordon Granger announcing all the slaves are free, June 19, 1865, and as families traveled from Texas to other parts of the country, they brought the celebration with them,” he said.

Over the past several years, Myers’ foundation has won approval from 25 US states and numerous Congressional supporters to make Juneteenth a national holiday. He says momentum is still building.

“We have 25 states now, thanks to the signature on legislation Saturday by Governor (Deval) Patrick of Massachusetts. We are also working with Congress and have great support from the House and the Senate. But unfortunately, even though we’ve sent hundreds of thousands of petitions to the White House, and Congress has passed legislation urging President Bush to do so, he has not issued a presidential proclamation or even been responsive personally to Juneteenth in America,” he noted.

Myers cites reasons for the observance. “The fact that we have a unique history of freedom, that George Washington was a slave owner, that Thomas Jefferson was a slave owner, and it wasn’t until over 80 years after the country’s first Fourth of July (Independence Day) that the last Americans of African descent learned of their freedom, that infusion of our history is important because unless we understand where we came from, we can’t progress very effectively into the future,” he said.

Juneteenth has also developed a sympathetic following in other countries around the world as people share in the celebration of liberation with Americans who have settled in foreign societies, soldiers who staff foreign military bases, and US tourists flock to visit and celebrate overseas. Myers says two of the most unique observances in African countries occur in Ghana and in South Africa.

“I know in Ghana, they have a time of celebration with music, food, dance and even the reading of the Emancipation Proclamation because there are Americans who live in the country in Ghana alone. And in South Africa, the number of people celebrating Juneteenth has increased. And this is because a lot more Americans are traveling to Africa during this time of the year,” he notes.

Of particular interest for the promotion of cultural ties between South Africa and the United States, Dr. Myers says the celebration of Juneteenth ties together two historic events in the history of racial emancipation.

“It’s a freedom celebration. I had the wonderful experience of King Zulu sitting with the health ambassador and the tourism ambassador. And we talked about ways we can be closer as two nations. And the uprising in the Soweto ghetto occurred on June 16th. Juneteenth occurred on June 19th. And so, as we celebrate Juneteenth, we also strike a common bond with other freedom celebrations we link to the history of African nations. And certainly, with the uprising in the Soweto ghetto and Juneteenth historically days apart, it’s an inspiration to both South Africa and America,” he said.