The celebration of June 16 as a national holiday represents great progress towards understanding part of black history. The day marks the final abolition of slavery and what that means for America’s wider history. However, most black communities have celebrated June 16 since June 19, 1865. Since that day we continue to commemorate that no one is free until we are all free!
June 16 will forever mean to me what it means to carry the torch, keep faith and have patience. In these turbulent times, each of us can literally have both taken away. As a tour guide for the APEX Museum, I have the opportunity to educate people from around the world about some of the most relevant and influential parts of our black history. From this vantage point, I have seen hundreds of people go from complete ignorance to a fuller understanding of the strength, tenacity and perseverance of our people who have been oppressed for more than 400 years. I can easily see in many of their facial expressions the complete change in mindset that comes with just one visit.
June 19, 1865 was the day that 250,000 slaves in the state of Texas were finally freed. On this day General Order No. 3 by Union General Gordon Granger ordering federal troops to free all enslaved people. That was two and a half years after President Abraham Lincoln’s January 1, 1863 Emancipation Proclamation.
Two theories piqued my interest when learning the story of Juneteenth:
Some messengers were allegedly shot by people who opposed freeing slaves. These killers would take the same routes as the messengers and kill them.
Another theory is that the message was deliberately withheld because some federal troops were waiting for the slaveholders to bring in one last crop of cotton before going to Texas and breaking the news.
Why should that be when these slaves should have been freed as early as 1863? That was the question I asked myself because this newfound information was very questionable. I now know the answer. There is evidence to support the second theory I put forward above. It is a well-known fact that as Union troops advanced and the Confederacy was clearly losing during this period of the Civil War, slaveholders throughout the South moved their human “properties” to Texas in hopes of preserving slavery for as long as possible. Therefore, they deliberately kept free men in bondage.
The recognition of June 16 as a national holiday is a wonderful step in the right direction. It is more than time to celebrate it in such grandeur among Black families and communities at large. This deepens the connection between us and these brave and faithful souls of our past.
There is a rare illustration by Thomas Nast that was published in the Cincinnati Gazette entitled “Patience on a Monument”. The illustration shows a freed man seated on a monument listing the evils perpetrated against black people. A carving of a dead woman and children lies at the base of the memorial as violence and fire rage in the background. This illustration caught my eye because it shows the true essence of what June 16 means, how these people maintained faith, patience and perseverance while being abused and left in the dark of the vital information that would set them free .
June 16 was not always celebrated on June 19, but on what the free people knew as Emancipation Day. This annual celebration began the following year on January 1, 1866. It was based on the understanding that President Lincoln enforced the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, so why not honor it and call it Emancipation Day? People later began celebrating June 19 on June 19 because that was the actual day on which the General Orders were read. June 16 had always been a private celebration in Texas until recently recognized as a federal holiday by President Joe Biden.
As we continue to celebrate June 16th, let’s understand the meaning of the red foods associated with the holiday and why they matter.
Red represents the precious, innocent blood spilled on the road to freedom. In West African cultures, too, red is a symbol of life and death, spirituality and strength. It is seen as a piece of cultural heritage, along with these people’s distinct appreciation for okra, beans, melons, and many other foods (some red, some not) that were brought across the Atlantic during the time I know as Maafa. Maafa is a Swahili term meaning “great and terrible tragedy”. Simply because that’s exactly what happened to these people. It is commonly known as the Middle Passage or the Atlantean Slave Trade.
Juneteenth has its own flag to represent the holiday. The flag deliberately consists of the colors red, white and blue with a star in the middle, similar to the flag of the United States. The flag intentionally resembles the US flag to represent both the Lone Star State (Texas) and the freedom of all enslaved people from all 50 states and their descendants thereafter.
Finally, please remember that June 16th is not just another day off. Rather, it is a day on which 157 years later, on this very day, we celebrate and honor our ancestors for their freedom and ours.