Juneteenth: Good Reason–and Plenty of Locations to–Celebrate!

By Wendy Swanson

Washington D.C.

Monday, June 14, 2021


The artist Reginald Adams has created the above mural "Absolute Equality" in Galveston, Texas, where Army General George Granger read Special Order No. 3. The mural title echoes language from that order. The dedication of the artwork will take place this Juneteenth in Galveston. (Photo credit: The National Trust for Historic Preservation "Saving Places" website)


Juneteenth, or June 19, is rapidly approaching. The day - also known as Jubilee, Freedom, Liberation or Emancipation Day – serves as a celebration of the ending of slavery in this country. On June 19, 1865 in Galveston, Texas, U.S. Army General Gordon Granger read General Order No. 3, stating that “The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation of the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free.” The order further emphasized that “this involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves.”


Slavery had continued in Texas after the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation. The Civil War ended in the spring of 1865 but even after formal Confederate surrenders, ex-rebels remained in Texas and continued their acts of plunder. This area was at the western edge of the former Confederacy, land to which slave owners from points east traveled (with their slaves) to escape the reach of the federal troops. As a result, two and one-half years after the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation, Federal troops arrived to establish Union authority over Texas. Granger’s announcement did not act as a magic wand to ensure freedom for all enslaved. Rather, plantation masters often delayed telling the news to their slaves until after the harvest. Some even forced the newly freed back to work. Freedom would be a long, hard road to travel. Yet, in 1866, freedmen in Galveston organized the first celebration of their freedom, a tradition that not only continued and but also has since spread across the nation.


Louis Henry Gates identifies Juneteenth is an appropriate date to celebrate emancipation. The date is near “the summer solstice, the longest day of the year, when the sun, at its zenith, defies the darkness in every state, including those once shadowed by slavery.” Not only that, Juneteenth originated in “the last place in the South that freedom touched.” See Gates' commentary here.


This year on the 19th, in Galveston, where Juneteenth was born, the city is dedicating a 5,000 square foot mural (shown above) fittingly entitled “Absolute Equality” on the spot where General Granger informed the enslaved of their freedom. Juneteenth is now recognized as a holiday by most states and the District of Columbia; local celebrations are held nation-wide. Many advocate national holiday recognition for the day.

On Friday, June 18 the National Juneteenth Observation Foundation (NJOF) will be holding a celebratory old-fashioned ice cream social in Lincoln Park at 11th Street and E. Capitol, St. NE., in Washington. The event will reflect many of the traditions typically found at Juneteenth gatherings over the years: an opening prayer, speakers, music. remembrances and special treats for the palate. Assembly starts at 11:30 a.m. with servings of homemade ice cream from Springfield's Paradise Ice Cream. At noon the formal program begins with Buffalo Soldiers presenting the colors, followed by a wreath laying at the Emancipation statue in the park and a rendition of “Lift Every Voice,” often referred to as the Black National Anthem. A highlight of the formal program will be the reading of historic documents that led to freedom: US Congress Chapter 111, the Emancipation Proclamation, the 13th Amendment, and General Order #3 – providing the opportunity for all to reflect on the meaning of the day and its history. NJOF President Steve Williams will provide a short talk on “Juneteenth the Birth of Black Wall Street,” before the event ends at 1 p.m.” The NJOF furnishes a summary of the whole Juneteenth story @ http://www.njof.org/about-njof/juneteenth-history//.


And this event is just the beginning of local celebrations. Juneteenth itself is jam packed with activities.

In Virginia; In Alexandria, the Carlyle House Historic Park and the Athenaeum will be celebrating on the 19th from noon to 5 p.m. On the lawn of the Carlyle House a free community event will feature live music, hands-on activities, art, history, poetry readings, a poetry clinic and the chance to interact with the performers/artists. The Athenaeum will offer African-themed activities for all ages. Displays will include information concerning research on the enslaved individuals of John Carlyle and his descendants. A scavenger hunt will give visitors the chance to learn more about our nation’s “second independence day.” Staff from the Slavery Inventory Database group will be on site to talk more about their work with the Carlyle House and their efforts to establish the identities of individuals long neglected by history.


At 2 p.m. on the mansion's lawn at Gunston Hall, Valerie Davis, through storytelling, will embody the physical, historical and spiritual essence of Martha Ann Fields, a 19th century freedom seeker. She will share how Fields gathered up her children and crossed the Pamunkey River to reach Union lines to secure her family’s freedom. The program is included in the regular admission price of the site, with an option available for just this 50-minute program (https://gunstonhall.org). Ida Lee Park in Leesburg, VA will be the site of celebration traditional for the day (ticketed event, $5/person), this one from noon to 6 p.m., with performances, speakers, food and other vendors. The event headliner is the Chuck Brown Band. Click here for more information.


In Maryland: Lexington Park has free family activities on the 19th. From the comfort of home, watch a special noon presentation from the Unified Committee for Afro-American Contributions (UCAC) website https://www.ucaconline.org . Then at 1 p.m. an in-person history tour of pertinent historic sites in the area is available. Later in the day, from 4-6 p.m., Lancaster Park hosts a live jazz concert. A parade and festival highlights the events in Annapolis where a procession beginning at noon at the City Dock will travel to the Maryland Hall for Creative Arts. The festival will close with a reading of the Emancipation Proclamation, theatrical performances and a tribute to local artists. See more here. Peerless Rockville presents "Forcing Freedom: A Special Exhibit for Juneteenth" that focuses on the Underground Railroad. More information is available here.


All of us have an assortment of opportunities in our communities - whether virtual or live - to learn and reflect on the importance of Juneteenth. Whatever you do on the 19th, take time to remember.