The Importance of Juneteenth
A professor in the Department of History addresses the ever-present significance of Juneteenth.
By Tiarra Drisker ‘25
Juneteenth, observed on June 19, is a federal holiday intended to commemorate the emancipation of African American slaves. Over 150 years later, educating people about Juneteenth is as important as ever.
Though President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, enslaved African Americans in Texas were not made aware of their freedom until two years later. Due to a Confederate blockade, many of the battles within the Civil War took place outside of Texas. This made Texas an isolated confederate state where many southern slaveholders took their slaves to hide them from the Union army. On June 19, 1865, Union Brigadier General Gordon Granger delivered the news of freedom from the balcony of the former headquarters of the Texas Confederate Army.
“The reactions of the newly emancipated were mixed: some stood in quiet shock and disbelief, others shouted prayers to God, but most sang and danced right there in the streets,” Shennette Garrett-Scott, a professor in the Department of History, wrote in her article entitled “When Peace Come”: Teaching the Significance of Juneteenth.
Some may see Juneteenth as a small moment in the Civil War and Reconstruction, but its significance goes beyond that. Since that announcement of freedom in 1865, Juneteenth has become a celebration of African American culture, triumph, and civil rights.
“I have been researching and speaking about Juneteenth for nearly a decade, and I never tire of it,” Garrett-Scott said. “Juneteenth is a small but important moment in American history. The moment is important because it is, in many ways, a microcosm of the struggle for African Americans in particular but Americans in general to live out the democratic promises of this country.”
By the early 1890s, Blacks began using “Juneteenth” to describe the day they were emancipated. From there, Juneteenth celebrations grew across the country and some even rivaled Independence Day celebrations. These celebrations were joyful and commemorative, but Black people also began using Juneteenth celebrations as a way to empower Black people politically, economically, and spiritually.
“First in Texas and later throughout the country, African Americans folded Juneteenth celebrations into their political culture,” Garrett-Scott explained. “The tension inherent in Juneteenth—that is, the promise and denial of freedom—required both celebration and vigilance. For example, Juneteenth celebrations often doubled as political meetings. These meetings were truly democratic because not only men but also women and children participated in developing strategies for community survival and empowerment.”
Juneteenth still holds importance in 2022 and is fundamental to understanding American history. As America progresses, certain things tend to be left out of history, but there is still much to learn from Juneteenth, Garrett-Scott said. Formerly enslaved people were “freed” in a country where they were still surrounded by their enslavers, still did not have basic rights, had little to no government assistance, and were still oppressed.
“To be sure, the document itself was a backhanded slap in the face,” Garrett-Scott said. “In one breath, enslaved people learn that they are free, and in the next they learn the terms of that stingy freedom. Juneteenth helps us better understand the lived realities of African Americans at emancipation: being free and acting free are two very different things. Their struggle had, in many ways, only just begun”
As Juneteenth approaches, there are a couple of ways for people of all backgrounds to celebrate and commemorate the emancipation of enslaved African Americans. You can stop by the Cushing Memorial Library & Archives where you will find several resources documenting Black life in the United States such as the Charles Criner Collection. There will also be a Juneteenth Parade and Blues Fest June 18 in Bryan from 10am to 10pm. Additionally, you can visit the Brazos Valley African American Museum.
“Juneteenth is a quintessentially American holiday,” Garrett-Scott shared. “Juneteenth is all about citizens making claims on the freedoms enshrined in our most sacred civic documents: all people are created equal. All people have inalienable rights: rights that can never be denied or taken away from them. Texas and other states have condemned efforts to tell a more complete and inclusive U.S. history that acknowledges the failures of freedom. Juneteenth takes a hard look at the bitter and the sweet of our collective past, present, and future. The pain and the promise. Freedom denied, freedom created.”