Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

Hari Jones Drops the Hammer on National Observance of Juneteenth

Posted in African Americans, Memory by Andy Hall on June 20, 2011

Hari Jones, Curator of the African American Civil War Museum, drops the hammer on the movement to make Juneteenth a national holiday, and the organization behind it, the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation (NJoF). He argues that the narrative used to justify the propose holiday does little to credit African Americans with taking up their own struggle, and instead presents them as passive players in emancipation, waiting on the beneficence of the Union army to do it for them. Further, he presses, the standard Juneteenth narrative carries forward a long-standing, intentional effort to suppress the story of how African Americans, in ways large and small, worked to emancipate themselves, particularly by taking up arms for the Union. He wraps up a stem-winder:

Certainly, informed and knowledgeable people should not celebrate the suppression of their own history. Juneteenth day is a de facto celebration of such suppression. Americans, especially Americans of African descent, should not celebrate when the enslaved were freed by someone else, because that’s not the accurate story. They should celebrate when the enslaved freed themselves, by saving the Union. Such freedmen were heroes, not spectators, and their story is currently being suppressed by the advocates of the Juneteenth national holiday. The Emancipation Proclamation did not free the slaves; it made it legal for this disenfranchised, enslaved population to free themselves, while maintaining the supremacy of the Constitution, and preserving the Union. They became the heroes of the Republic. It is as Lincoln said: without the military help of the black freedman, the war against the South could not have been won.

That’s worth celebrating. That’s worth telling. The story of how Americans of African descent helped save the Union, and freed themselves. Let’s celebrate the truth, a glorious history, a story of a glorious march to Liberty.

One gets the idea that Jones’ beef with the NJoF and its director, Dr. Ronald Myers, is about something more personal than mere historical narrative.

Jones makes a powerful argument, with solid points. But I think he misses something crucial, which is that in Texas, where Juneteenth originated, it’s been a regular celebration since 1866. It is not a modern holiday, established retroactively to commemorate an event in the long past; the celebration of Juneteenth is as old as emancipation itself. It was created and carried on by the freedmen and -women themselves:

Some of the early emancipation festivities were relegated by city authorities to a town’s outskirts; in time, however, black groups collected funds to purchase tracts of land for their celebrations, including Juneteenth. A common name for these sites was Emancipation Park. In Houston, for instance, a deed for a ten-acre site was signed in 1872, and in Austin the Travis County Emancipation Celebration Association acquired land for its Emancipation Park in the early 1900s; the Juneteenth event was later moved to Rosewood Park. In Limestone County the Nineteenth of June Association acquired thirty acres, which has since been reduced to twenty acres by the rising of Lake Mexia.

Particular celebrations of Juneteenth have had unique beginnings or aspects. In the state capital Juneteenth was first celebrated in 1867 under the direction of the Freedmen’s Bureau and became part of the calendar of public events by 1872. Juneteenth in Limestone County has gathered “thousands” to be with families and friends. At one time 30,000 blacks gathered at Booker T. Washington Park, known more popularly as Comanche Crossing, for the event. One of the most important parts of the Limestone celebration is the recollection of family history, both under slavery and since. Another of the state’s memorable celebrations of Juneteenth occurred in Brenham, where large, racially mixed crowds witness the annual promenade through town. In Beeville, black, white, and brown residents have also joined together to commemorate the day with barbecue, picnics, and other festivities.

It’s one thing to argue with another historian or community leader about the the historical narrative represented by a public celebration (think Columbus Day), but it’s entirely another to — in effect — dismiss the understanding of the day as originally celebrated by the people who actually lived those events, and experienced them at first hand.

What do you think?

h/t Kevin. Image: Juneteenth celebration in Austin, June 19, 1900. PICA 05476, Austin History Center, Austin Public Library.


17 Responses

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  1. Nora Carrington said, on June 20, 2011 at 10:16 am

    On the general topic of slaves working to free themselves, I saw Adam Goodheart on Book TV this weekend [video is not online] discussing his book The Civil War Awakening. There was some talk about Emancipation and Lincoln’s evolving views on slavery, but the best part was about Ft. Monroe and the contrabands. He told an anecdote that isn’t in his NYT article on the same subject

    about how Butler made the decision to arm the escaped slaves not just with shovels but with guns. I was reminded, of course, of “If slaves will make good soldiers, our whole theory of slavery is wrong.” If you’ve read his book or know the source of his information on Butler arming at least one of the men who had freed themselves, I’d be curious to know. [The anecdote as I recall it had to do with Butler and some of the troops leaving the fort, with one of the scouts/spies who’d been providing intel and his insistence that everyone had to be armed; sorry I can’t remember more]

    • Andy Hall said, on June 20, 2011 at 10:46 am

      One more damned book to read. šŸ˜‰

      I wasn’t aware that Butler actively armed the “contrabands” who came under his protection, but I wouldn’t be surprised. He’s a fascinating character, who’s never really gotten his due credit as one of the key figures in shaping the war. He was an easy man to caricature — short, dumpy, bald and cross-eyed — and he’s routinely written off as “Beast Butler” or “Spoons Butler.” (I’ve frequently used the latter appellation myself, because I find it funny and a little silly. I am twelve.) But he had a fantastic ability to see situations in a fundamentally different way than his contemporaries, and act upon them. Forget Mumford or his infamous “woman of the town” order; there should be a statue of him in New Orleans honoring the lives he saved from yellow fever alone.

    • Sheri Bailey said, on November 28, 2011 at 6:34 pm

      JuneteenthVA uses the arts to look back at slavery without shame or blame. At see what happened at a 2009 performance of “Abolitionists’ Museum” interrupted by a woman with this,”Nat Turner killed my family!” Also in the audience were Sons of the Confederacy concerned about the play’s treatment of the rebel flag. In the post show talk our goal of getting people to speak honestly and be heard by each other was achieved. So much of the history of how the USA grew strong on the backs and by the sweat of enslaved labor happened in VA esp. in Hampton Roads. The capital of the Confederacy at nearby Richmond was the south’s 2nd largest slave auction block. The region was a major stop on the Underground Railroad because of its ports and the Great Dismal Swamp. JuneteenthVA posits that the 1st battle of the Civil War was Nat Turner’s 1831 insurrection in Southampton County (also the home of Dred Scott who fought Fugitive Slave Laws all the way to the Supreme Court). President Obama’s recent signing of the Antiquities Act designating Fort Monroe a national park is a giant step towards finally telling the complete narrative of America’s founding on the principles of freedom and justice for all. But this history is perceived as being more about Black history rather than American history and so it would be extremely helpful if leaders like Hari Jones and Ronald Myers raised their voices to insist that the Historic Triangle that includes Jamestown, Colonial Williamsburg and Yorktown should be expanded to a Quadrangle. In 1619 the 1st Africans in the USA landed at Old Point Comfort at Fort Monroe. Like many of their European peers they were indentured servants. Those Africans were the seeds of a little known class of Free Blacks that later formed the basis of the Black middle-class. The laws that created slavery started showing up in the VA Codes around the 1660s. It was at Fort Monroe in May 1861, at the start of the Civil War, where three enslaved men (James Townsend, Frank Baker and Shepherd Mallory) courageously made their way to petition for their freedom. Because Black people were defined as only 3/5s human in the Constitution they couldn’t be given citizenship so Union Gen. Benjamin Butler devised a policy that became known as Contraband of War. Soon 1000s of Black men, women and children were being put on the path to citizenship, not only at Fort Monroe but at Union camps throughout the South. This is amazing history that when it is finally known and understood will make a difference for modern day issues like high incarceration rates for people of color, poor public schools and a lack of access to health care. Fighting over how to interpret this history is a waste of time and an indication of how damaged we’ve been by it all.

  2. Hari Jones said, on June 20, 2011 at 3:07 pm

    Andy, June 16th was the day that began Juneteenth celebrations in Texas back in the 19th century, which was called the Juneteenth Ball. Some Texans still hold Juneteenth Balls. In Virginia the equivalent day was/is April 3rd, in Florida May 5th. In each case they celebrated liberation within their respective states by recognizing the victory of Union forces, with African American soldiers at the forefront, over the rebel state governments. Let us recognize what the Texas Juneteenth celebration was really about, and let us not explain it with inaccuracies just because it was celebrated. If we we are accurate in our explanations, we honor the ancestors who celebrated Juneteenth. By not providing an accurate explanation, we “dismiss the understanding of the day as originally celebrated by the people who actually lived those events, and experienced them at first hand.” I highly recommend the use of primary sources to understand those experienced the history first hand. And by the way, Butler did not arm the so-called “contrabands” at Fort Monroe. He did, however, bring two regiments (the 1st and 2nd Louisiana Native Guards) of mostly freemen in New Orleans into the Union army by October of 1862.

    • Andy Hall said, on June 20, 2011 at 3:13 pm

      Thanks very much for taking time to comment.

    • Lyle Smith said, on June 20, 2011 at 4:03 pm

      … and don’t forget the 3rd LA Native Guards who made the charge with the 1st LA Native Guards at Port Hudson. šŸ™‚

  3. Lyle Smith said, on June 20, 2011 at 4:00 pm

    I’m with both of you sort of. I think a national holiday might be a good thing, but there is a problem with the dates because it didn’t happen at the same time everywhere. It’s also true that many slaves freed themselves when they took it upon themselves to do so, however many also were freed by the Union army or the approach of it. Some slaves probably never stepped a foot off their masters’ property either and were freed as a matter of law at some point (thanks to secession and a Federal victory). And yes Juneteenth is a Texas specific celebration just like Cinco de Mayo is a State of Puebla specific celebration. One might could say Juneteenth is being Cinco de Mayo’d or vice versa.

  4. Venita said, on November 28, 2011 at 11:52 am

    I struggled once before with the understanding of the meaning for Juneteenth, coming from the North now living in Texas however after some research in these last two years, I have come to the understanding that it should be highly recognized as the ā€œindependenceā€ from enslavement after the Civil War and the Unionā€™s victory. Just like independence from the British. If Texas concludes the place where the news of victory from enslavement and the Unionā€™s victory won from the Civil War, and that those enslaved celebrated this day back then and it continues year after year, then I see no problem with making Juneteenth a National Independence Day from the Civil War. We commemorated the 200th Anniversary of the banning of illegal importantion of slaves in 2008, myself included, and today I am combating enslavement of our children being trafficked from state to state and country to country in 2011. Whatā€™s up with that? Humans are still being trafficked in modern day slavery in bondage in the United States, TODAY 2011!!! HECK, help me out with thisā€¦.

    Venita Benitez
    Founder, Global Slavery Remembrance Day

    • venita benitez said, on October 29, 2015 at 9:07 am

      1619 Hampton, Va the root of evil in America for Black Americans and until we can focus our efforts on learning our history we will never be able “in the battle to do what weā€™ve been called to do”. Saving all children against human trafficking today’s modern-day slavery!!!!

      In the battle to do what you’ve been called to do, do not mistake the victory as having changed the minds of critics. Your victory is to complete the assignment God has given you. T.D. Jakes

  5. Iya Adjua (@IyaAdjua) said, on November 28, 2011 at 4:28 pm

    I agree with Hari Jones about celebrating Juneteenth, especially the fact that as Jones states “Certainly, informed and knowledgeable people should not celebrate the suppression of their own history. Juneteenth day is a de facto celebration of such suppression. Americans, especially Americans of African descent, should not celebrate when the enslaved were freed by someone else, because thatā€™s not the accurate story. They should celebrate when the enslaved freed themselves, by saving the Union. Such freedmen were heroes, not spectators, and their story is currently being suppressed by the advocates of the Juneteenth national holiday.”

    Let’s get this [Juneteenth info] right and leave room for the acknowledgement of the Gullah Wars falsely known by some as the Seminole Indian War. A War for freedom that led to the Civil War, it is Afrikan ppl who have to learn and tell our own true stories despite mainstream supported suppression thereof.

    Iya Adjua
    The Culture Rebel

    • Andy Hall said, on November 28, 2011 at 5:07 pm

      Thanks for taking time to comment. I understand Jones’ intent here, and am sympathetic to it, but also see it as missing a critical point that I tried to get at my post.

      Juneteenth is not a celebration or commemoration that was imposed on African Americans, or created retroactively, long after the events it commemorates; it’s one that sprang from the former enslaved people themselves, as a celebration of their own. In Texas it goes back almost to 1865. As a celebration it was embraced and supported and expanded by African Americans themselves, men and women who had experienced the horrors of slavery at first hand. It’s not a modern commemoration, made up to fit a particular narrative. It seems to me that if modern Americans say that “this is a wrong thing to celebrate,” that pretty much flies in the face of those who established Juneteenth, who were actually there, who struggled and survived and overcame, doesn’t it? Should we really be looking at the men and women in that picture above and say, “you were wrong”?

      Help me understand, please.

      • Ronald Doc Myers said, on November 29, 2011 at 10:03 am

        Juneteenth is a celebration of freedom from enslavement in America. It is recognized as a state holiday or state holiday observance in 39 states, the District of Columbia and the U.S. Congress as Juneteenth Independence Day. President Obama has issued a statement recognizing Juneteenth every year he has been in the oval office. Before becoming the first African American U.S. President, Senator Obama supported and sponsored Juneteenth legislation as a state senator and U.S. Senator from Illinois.

        It follows that the so called “hammer” that has been “dropped” on the movement to make Juneteenth a national holiday, and the organization behind it, the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation (NJOF), has also been “dropped” on the President of the United States, the U.S. Congress, the District of Columbia, most state legislatures and Governors across America and millions of people who celebrate Juneteenth in America and around the world.

        In my opinion, your views and approach to the subject matter at hand are divisive and counter productive.

        Our ancestors, Americans of African descent, heard the news of freedom, on the “19th of June”, 1865, in Galveston, Texas, and celebrated jubilantly. This establishes America’s second Independence Day Celebration and the oldest African American holiday observance.

        Texas was the last state where enslavement was practiced following the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation by Abraham Lincoln on September 22, 1862 and going into effect on January 1, 1863.

        The news of freedom from enslavement spread throughout the land at different times throughout many states. It took over two and a half years for the news of freedom to finally arrive in the last major geographic vestige of slavery in the United States following the end of the Civil War, southwest Texas.

        Even though enslavement did not legally end throughout the nation until the passage of the 13th Amendment, on December 18, 1865, those of us who celebrate Juneteenth, honor our ancestors by joining them in celebrating freedom from enslavement in America on the “19th of June” each year.

        Anyone is free to celebrate freedom from enslavement at any time of their choosing. However, those of us who are part of the “Modern Juneteenth Movement” have chosen the “19th of June” and will continue to work to make Juneteenth Independence Day a National Day of Observance, like Flag Day of Patriot Day in America.

        I am also taken by the fact that the Curator of the African American Civil War Museum, an important black historical institution in the nation’s capitol, would launch a public attack against the “Modern Juneteenth Movement” and our lead organization, the NJOF.

        Are your views the official position of the African American Civil War Museum against our grassroots effort to make Juneteenth Independence Day a National Day of Observance, like Flag Day or Patriot Day in America? Why didn’t you attempt to engage in constructive public dialogue with the leadership of the NJOF about your views?

        I invite you to attend the annual WASHINGTONJUNETEENTH National Holiday Observance. Our 2012 celebration will be our 13th year, beginning with our first annual events in the year 2000.

        Perhaps we could meet and discuss how we can find common ground in the recognition of our ancestors who courageously took up arms to fight to be emancipated from enslavement.

        During the early years of our WASHINGTON JUNETEENTH National Holiday Observance, theNJOF sponsored events at the African American Civil War Museum. We hosted aJuneteenth Jazz concert honoring the legacy of Washington, DC native Duke Ellington.

        Our people need to be made more aware about Juneteenth and the brave actions of our people who fought and died in the Civil War.

        We look forward to working with you constructively concerning the education of our community about our history in the future.

        Rev. Ronald V. Myers, Sr., M.D.
        Founder & Chairman
        National Juneteenth Observance Foundation (NJOF)
        National Juneteenth Christian Leadership Council (NJCLC)
        National Association of Juneteenth Jazz Presenters (NAJJP)

        • Andy Hall said, on November 29, 2011 at 10:49 am

          Dr. Myers:

          Thank you for your long and thoughtful comment. I’m not sure it was directed at me, however, as much of it seems to be addressing Hari Jones (e.g., “are your views the official position of the African American Civil War Museum. . . ?”). If you look through my blog, you’ll note that I have supported the establishment of Juneteenth as a national holiday, even as I argue for a more careful look at the historicity of the events here in June 1865.

          I posted Jones’ video because he is thoughtful and has a clear position on the subject, even though his conclusion to reject Juneteenth as a holiday, is one I disagree with. The “drops a hammer” phrase is mine, although given his position and argument, it seemed (and still seems) an appropriate metaphor.

          Thanks again for visiting my blog. I hope you’ll find more interesting material here, and perhaps become a regular commenter.

  6. Ronn said, on June 30, 2013 at 7:06 pm

    Am an old man who has loved history all my life, especially the American Civil War. I have been many places & seen many differeent cultures of the world so I think I know a little bit, not much, but a little bit. I did CW re-enacting for over 22 years as a Confederate Infantry man, Ariillery man. In all the campfires on a Friday, Saturday night or a long week event, naturally we talked about why the war started & happened & what slavery had to do with it. We really did not discuss that because to us, yes slavery was a catalist too it but not the major cause. Yes, slavery was a major economic factor to the southern enconomy but what has seemly been forgotten amongst all historinans is that, maybe, less than 1% were rich slave holders. Yer average Confederate solder was a very poor man, did not have slaves ore really cared about the issue. He was just trying to survive & support his family. He was really just a hint above the level of slavery himself! Why did, he give up what little he had to go off & fight a war then? Believe me, it sure was not about slavery. Think about it?

    • Ronn you said:

      //Yer average Confederate solder was a very poor man, did not have slaves ore really cared about the issue. He was just trying to survive & support his family. He was really just a hint above the level of slavery himself!//

      What you are missing is that poor whites were fully invested in white supremacy and keeping black people “in their place.” kzs

  7. Sule Greg Wilson said, on March 27, 2014 at 3:10 pm

    Jones’ point, I believe, is that AfrAms identify and celebrate positive holidays. I agree. I would, then, suggest contacting state and local organizations to celebrate Nat Turner Day, or Malcolm X Day, or Sojourner Truth Day, or Katherine Dunham Day, or Powhatan Beaty Day, or Doris Miller Day, or any number of local, national and internationally-known People of Color. Let’s do that, and start a groundswell of awareness that will, in time, behoove the Federal Government to recognize…or not. If it’s ours, it does not have to be everyone’s.

  8. Tadar Jihad Wazir said, on June 22, 2014 at 12:14 am

    I just ran across this almost at midnight and I like the direction that it is taking. The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth about “the good, the bad, and the ugly” actors on all sides in both hemispheres will bring the love that will heal this mindset that certain interests are hell bent on keeping the status quo.

    I did not read all of the side bars but I did not notice the very first battle between the Coloreds and the Whites during the Civil War. It took place just outside Butler, Missouri with the 1st Kansas Colored Volunteers who repelled an ambush at “Island Mound” so decisively that the Whites ran off from their post during the night leaving most of their equipment and animals behind.

    This was an all Colored unit and this particular battle was led by a “Colored Indian” and some of his colored slaves.

    They are quoted as saying “Those niggers fought like devils”. It was a tough hand to hand battle with several of the Colored troopers being wounded more than once, but they knew that they had to do or die.

    Later on the Union Army got them to join them and they degraded them by assigning White officers to them because key Whites felt that Colored people could not fight.

    It’s strange that not one European country has ever defeated the whole continent of Africa. Then and now they use subterfuge; bribes, lies, and assassinations to have their way with its leaders, while they rape the country and keep its people, and us divided with BS. Historically, nothing stays the same, so this method of control will also change and we need to be ready for that day that is rapidly approaching.

    Study to show yourself approved then take up the yoke of your responsibility and help others to realize their place in the sun. It’s up to them to claim it, no one will just give it to them or us. And that is how it should be.

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