African-Americans mark independence; celebrate Juneteenth

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — African-Americans across the country will participate in Juneteenth events this month, continuing a long history of celebrating emancipation and freedom.

Sen. Barack Obama
“The son of a white woman and African man has morphed into an African-American, mostly as a matter of skin color,” Bynum says. “But his candidacy still brings hopefulness to this year’s celebrations.”

The Juneteenth holiday dates to June 19, 1865, when Union Gen. Gordon Granger read the Emancipation Proclamation in Galveston, Texas, freeing 250,000 slaves in the state. They were the last slaves freed by the Emancipation Proclamation, signed by President Abraham Lincoln two and a half years earlier.

African-Americans have long celebrated holidays of freedom, many specific to a certain region, says Cornelius L. Bynum, a Purdue University assistant professor of history.

“Juneteenth is kind of a catchall for these regional celebrations,” he says. “The best way of thinking about Juneteenth is in the context of the Fourth of July because both are about independence.”

This year, Barack Obama’s candidacy for president brings a fresh sense of hope to Juneteenth celebrations, Bynum says.

Obama, a Democratic senator from Illinois, offers “a modern manifestation of a long and deep commitment of both blacks and whites to overcome racial divisions,” Bynum says.

Yet Bynum says that Obama also represents the ambivalence and ambiguity of race in the United States.

“The son of a white woman and African man has morphed into an African-American, mostly as a matter of skin color,” he says. “But his candidacy still brings hopefulness to this year’s celebrations.”

In the late 19th century, Juneteenth celebrations were fairly common in Texas and surrounding states. But the aftermath of Reconstruction in the late 1800s and racial violence early in the 1900s caused Southern whites to put social pressure on the celebrations. In the 1930s, the Depression added economic pressure. Juneteenth revived at the end of the 1960s and into the 1970s as Southern blacks who migrated north brought the tradition with them.

Juneteenth float in Houston TX parade
NAACP Float in the Juneteenth Parade in Houston, Texas

Texas passed legislation in 1979 that made Juneteenth a state holiday.

Bynum says Juneteenth celebrations are mostly communal festivals and aren’t necessarily on or around June 19.

“My mother’s family is from Kentucky, and they have a neighborhood or community gathering in August. It’s a homecoming celebration for some,” he says.

Because of its Southern roots, traditional Juneteenth events revolve around food, with self-improvement, educational, prayer and recreational activities also often being included.

An interactive map that lists state-by-state Juneteenth celebrations can be found at http://www.juneteenth.com.

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