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, 2013

[This post originally appeared 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:

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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.

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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:

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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.

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

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9 Responses

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  1. Cotton Boll Conspiracy said, on June 20, 2013 at 8:36 am

    Perhaps I’m simplifying it too much, but Juneteenth is a recognition of the point at which, in Texas, at least, enslaved blacks learned they were truly liberated. That occasion, and the celebration of that occasion, neither demeans blacks nor lauds whites as superior. It simply marks an historic event which, as you point out, has been noted and celebrated for nearly 150 years.

    I am unfamiliar with Hari Jones, so I’m not going to ascribe any motives to his argument, but in general people often prefer that their ancestors have “positive” histories. By that, I mean individuals today typically get more excited when they learn an ancestor was a general, a political leader or an important chief, but not so thrilled if the find out their forefathers were enslaved, sharecroppers, or peasant farmers in old country, etc. Perhaps there’s some resentment about Juneteenth because some descendants of slaves don’t want to be reminded that their ancestors were, in fact, slaves.

    Celebrating Juneteenth doesn’t take away from the role blacks played in helping save the Union or freeing themselves. If anything, it underscores the end of the war and the fact that blacks were not impartial bystanders during the war. It would be far better to emphasize the active role blacks played during the period rather than abolish Juneteenth itself.

    • Andy Hall said, on June 20, 2013 at 9:47 am

      Jones is a strong and clear advocate for recognizing the role that African Americans themselves played in resisting slavery in ways large and small, and bringing about their own emancipation. It was Frederick Douglass, for example, who observed that when he escaped bondage, he “stole” himself from his owner.

      I like the argument Jones is making here, and am in general agreement with it. Where Jones and I differ is that I support a wider, national and official recognition of Juneteenth. It’s specific to Texas in its origin, but in may ways a sort of symbolic capstone on the end of slavery. (The 13th Amendment had, at that point, already been passed and ratified by 23 states.) The clincher for me is that Juneteenth was established, grown and maintained as an event by the men and women who knew its significance best of all.

      • Cotton Boll Conspiracy said, on June 20, 2013 at 9:52 am

        I can see Jones’ point, but I think we would lose an important piece of history by doing away with an event begun by individuals who were there and, as you stated, understood the event’s significance best.

        • Andy Hall said, on June 20, 2013 at 10:21 am

          I guess my concern is that if we don’t set aside some specific date to formally celebrate emancipation, Americans (writ large) effectively won’t celebrate it at all.

  2. Foxessa said, on June 20, 2013 at 12:03 pm

    Forgetting that Juneteenth observances originated with the African Americans of 1866 is like leaving out the fact that Decoration Day, out of which came Memorial Day quite some time later, originated with the Richmond African Americans in 1866. And then, eliding what these origins signify within our national history.

    Love, C.

    • Andy Hall said, on June 20, 2013 at 12:34 pm

      The local community of Freedmen and -women didn’t wait for the first anniversary of June 19, 1865 to hold a big, public commemoration. They did it first on New Years Day, 1866 (third anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation), with a parade, assembly with speeches and singing, the works. It shifted almost immediately to June 19, but either way it was very much an event drive by the community itself from the beginning, not dreamed up years later, after reflection. It was real and immediate.

  3. Pat Young said, on June 20, 2013 at 2:07 pm

    Juneteenth was celebrated in the black community back in Buffalo when I was a teenager. It seems to be a holiday created by and preserved by people who were enslaved and their offspring, sometimes in the face of white suppression. People who celebrate it weave in messages of resistance, cultural continuity, and community solidarity.

    • Foxessa said, on June 20, 2013 at 8:06 pm

      It’s always been kind of a big deal here in New York state. So much so that I first heard of Juneteenth as a New York state observance — it wasn’t until a while later I understood it originated in Texas (thanks to an African American girlfriend, whose family hails from Texas — and Florida).

      Love, C.


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