The federal government’s embrace of Juneteenth is an occasion for both celebration and concern. Activists invested in the freedom of Black Americans rightly fear that the holiday will become commercialized and stripped of its radical, somber meaning. Finding ways to keep the spirit of Juneteenth alive will be crucial now that it’s inked its spot on calendars as America’s 11th federal holiday.
There are several ways to do this. For one, it is important to steer clear of what can be called the “MLK Day trap.” In other words, avoid making Juneteenth about one sliver of Black history, and instead make sure it captures the totality of the Black experiences of freedom in the summer of 1865. The Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday in the mainstream press is too often only about his “I Have a Dream” speech, and ignores his radical critiques the triple evils of militarism, greed, and racism. Likewise, Juneteenth coverage focusing only on the moment the formerly enslaved in Texas learn of their freedom fails to miss how that day represents a broader history of the dream of emancipation—and the reality of broken promises. As federal troops informed Black Americans in Texas about the end of slavery, actions were already underway by the Freedman’s Bureau to aid Black Americans across much of the South—many of which would shortly be overturned by the new Andrew Johnson administration.
“The way we can best take care of ourselves is to have land, and turn it and till it by our own labor,” Garrison Frazier told Gen. William T. Sherman and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton in January 1865. The general had asked Black Americans in Savannah, Ga., what could be done for them after their liberation by Union troops. Frazier, chosen by Black clergy in Savannah to represent them, made it clear that access to land was their best, and only, option for their communities to flourish. Shortly afterward, General Sherman issued Special Field Order Number 15, which granted the newly freed Black Americans of the coastal areas of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida roughly 40 acres of land. But less than a year later, Johnson reversed the order and returned the land to the plantation owners. Such an event should be remembered on Juneteenth, as a way to explain the possibilities that the holiday itself represents.
Juneteenth must not be tied just to the end of the Civil War but also to the Reconstruction era afterward. For some places, like Port Royal, S.C., there is no easy dividing line between the Civil War and Reconstruction eras, because they occurred concurrently. In 1861, Port Royal became one of the first places liberated by Union troops, and soon afterward, New England educators arrived in Port Royal to educate thousands of formerly enslaved Africans left behind by fleeing plantation owners. Juneteenth offers the only opportunity on the federal election calendar to celebrate the genuine heroism of the Black men and women who went from toiling in fields to, at long last, being given a chance to learn how to read and write.
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In recent years, Reconstruction has received more recognition as an important period in American history. Sites such as the Reconstruction Era National Park in Beaufort, S.C., and the Museum of the Reconstruction Era in Columbia, S.C., have been at the forefront of this national public history reckoning. But more needs to be done, and the Juneteenth holiday offers a chance to talk about the era in a forthright and honest manner. Considering the echoes of “redemption” by white Southerners to destroy Reconstruction via political violence in the South being felt in the January 6 “riot” at the Capitol building, this lesson is still sorely needed.
In this sense, we must make sure Juneteenth stays relevant by connecting the day to the struggle of Black Americans to make the United States live up to its best ideals. Juneteenth should serve as an opportunity to educate Americans of all races about the contributions Black Americans such as Octavius Catto of Philadelphia or Robert Smalls of Beaufort, S.C., made to American ideals of democracy during Reconstruction. It could give us space to discuss the methods utilized by Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois, Ida B. Wells, Fannie Barrier Williams, and so many others to combat discrimination in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Most of this celebrating would have to be done in local communities by educators, whether inside or outside the academy. Much of the heavy lifting to save Juneteenth from being another commercialized holiday has to be done by “everyday people.”
This brings us to a final reflection on the potential power of Juneteenth. It should never be forgotten that the holiday itself originated in Texas and is at its heart a local story of emancipation. Juneteenth would be a great opportunity to link up, or in some cases resurrect, the celebrations of Black freedom held in communities across the United States. Emancipation Day celebrations on January 1 were common in Black communities at the turn of the 20th century. Memorial Day still has special meaning for Black Charlestonians, who originated the holiday in the midst of the charred ruins of the former capital of slavery in North America in 1865.
Above all, Juneteenth allows Americans to understand that there can be more than one, or a small handful, of Black heroes in the pantheon of American champions for democracy, self-determination, and freedom. As historian and Ebony editor Lerone Bennett wrote in 1994, on the question of whether Black America should glorify Martin Luther King Jr. or Malcolm X, “It’s a question of both/and, of both Martin and Malcolm and Thurgood Marshall and Fannie Lou Hamer and the Little Rock Nine and perhaps even Marquette Frye, whose arrest sparked the Watts Rebellion.”
In short, Juneteenth, like other American holidays, may soon have its sales, fancy displays in department stores, and seasonal foods. Crass commercialization is as American as a July 4 fireworks, and so it is up to concerned and well-meaning citizens to keep the true reason for Juneteenth close to our hearts and minds: the end of enslavement in the United States and the ushering in, however brief, of a “new birth of freedom” for Black Americans. It’s the least that we can do to honor that first generation of freed Black Americans.