Fire up the grill and ice down some soda (or pop, or Moxie, whatever you like to call it). Tomorrow is Juneteenth!
The Civil War ended on April 9, 1865, when Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses Grant at Appomattox Court House, Virginia.* In those pre-television, pre-Twitter days, word of the end of the war didn’t get around too quickly. And of course, many slaveowners weren’t too eager for their slaves to hear the news. Two months after the end of the war, and two-and-a-half years after President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, Federal troops arrived in Galveston, Texas. The slaves there did not know that they were free and had been for a long time.
US Major General Gordon Granger took to the podium and read this statement to a crowd of onlookers:
“The people of Texas are informed that in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free.”
The day was the nineteenth of June, 1865. As you might expect, celebrations broke out, and the news spread quickly. “We’re free!” shouted the people who had been enslaved for so long. “We’re free!”
In and around Galveston, the day became enshrined as Juneteenth, a holiday to celebrate freedom. It soon spread throughout Texas. Freed blacks returned to the state for the holiday, and others celebrated with friends and family wherever they were. Many years later, in 1980, Juneteenth became an official state holiday in Texas. Since then, Juneteenth celebrations have gradually spread to other states and cities. It is still not widely celebrated, but is becoming more common. And it should, for all Americans, not just African Americans.
Juneteenth is a day to remember the suffering of African Americans and to celebrate their contributions to society. It is a time to celebrate and be grateful for freedom, and for the fact that our nation has extended that freedom to all its people. But it is more than that.
As children’s author and illustrator Tom Feelings put it, one of the advantages of Juneteenth celebrations is that
“. . . those chains of the past, those shackles that physically bound us together against our wills could . . . become spiritual links that willingly bind us together now and into the future . . . “
Celebrating Juneteenth, whether you are black, or brown, or white, is a way of bringing us all together as one free people. Continuing to think of it as an African American holiday reinforces the tendency for our nation to have two separate histories: one black and one white. Celebrating Juneteenth as an American holiday shows that we are all brothers and sisters—our responsibility is to love, respect, and care for each other, to celebrate and protect each other’s freedom. It’s a time to remind ourselves that we haven’t always done that, and to pledge to each other that from now on we always will.
So toss some burgers on the grill, pop that soda, and raise a toast to freedom and brotherhood.
* The surrender did not take place in a courthouse building. Appomattox Court House was the name of the town, the county seat of Appomattox County, Virginia, where Grant and Lee met (in a house) to negotiate and sign the surrender.