June 19, or Juneteenth, is Independence Day for many folks of African descent.
Also known as Emancipation Day or Freedom Day, it commemorates the end of slavery, the seminal event in African-American history. President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation took effect on Jan. 1, 1863, but the word did not spread instantly. According to one account from published slave narratives of how the holiday began, the Emancipation Proclamation was read to slaves in Galveston, Texas, on June 19, 1865, more than two years after it officially went into effect. As word of the end of slavery spread, Juneteenth was created to commemorate that day. Folklore tells why the news of freedom took so long to arrive.
One story is that slaves were intentionally kept ignorant about their freedom in order to allow crops to continue being harvested. Another has one messenger traveling by mule from the date of the Emancipation Proclamation to deliver the news, and it simply took more than two years to arrive from Washington, D.C., to Texas. Yet another story has the messenger being murdered before he could deliver the message. Juneteenth has been a state holiday in Texas since 1980, and it is now either an official holiday or an observed day in all 50 states. Juneteenth is also celebrated in other parts of the world, including China, Ghana, Israel and Japan, to name a few countries, according to Juneteenth.com, an educational Web site. Why should anyone celebrate the holiday?
“With its lighthearted name and tragicomic origins, Juneteenth appeals to many Americans by celebrating the end of slavery without dwelling on its legacy,” wrote Julia Moskin in a 2004 article in the New York Times. “Juneteenth, its celebrators say, is Martin Luther King’s Birthday without the grieving.”
No stats reveal how many people celebrate Juneteenth every year, but those who do usually treat it like most holidays: filled with parades, speakers, food, family, dancing and laughter.