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 18, 2017

[This post originally appeared in 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.

6 Responses

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  1. OhioGuy said, on June 18, 2017 at 11:52 am

    Same reaction as last year: it’s fine for Texas, just don’t try to foist it off on the rest of the nation! In Ohio, these Juneteenth idiots were passing off their inaccurate history to the point that the Ohio General Assemble had to pass a law making September 22, the anniversary of the Preliminary EP, as Emancipation Day in the Buckeye State. The Juneteenth apologists fought it in the legislature but failed. The Emancipation Celebration in Gallipolis, Ohio, started on Sept. 22, 1863, the first anniversary of the Preliminary EP. We believe it to be the oldest, continuous celebration of the EP in the nation. The effort to make Juneteenth a national holiday reminds me a lot of the Lost Cause: if the facts don’t fit your narrative, just make up new facts.

    • Andy Hall said, on June 18, 2017 at 2:50 pm

      Emancipation happened in a thousand different places in a thousand different ways.

  2. Meg Groeling said, on June 18, 2017 at 12:22 pm

    Wow! I am white, but it seems to me that one person shouldn’t attempt to speak for all others. I first learned about Juneteenth from black colleagues in California. It seemed wonderful to me that freed people in Texas (of all places) would choose their own holiday and celebrate it. Beyond that, I never gave it more thought, until now. If Juneteenth was initially celebrated in 1866 and continued to be celebrated, then it was a celebration that was held throughout Reconstruction, the horror show of sanctioned lynchings, early civil rights and the civil rights struggles of the 1960s. It has, obviously, been part of the glue that held the African American community together. I am thinking this deserves to be celebrated–it has earned that privilege. Add another holiday if you like–I love holidays!–but don’t take Juneteenth away. Keep educating–memory is paramount.

    • OhioGuy said, on June 20, 2017 at 11:35 pm

      Keep it in Texas. Please don’t pass it off as a national holiday. I don’t mean to deny it’s very real significance for the Lone Star State. It’s a rich and compelling story. But, the attempts by many groups to promote it nationally has had the effect of burying the real history of emancipation right in their own backyards. We had people in Ohio try to say it was the first emancipation celebration in the nation, not knowing anything about what happened in Gallia County. The stories they made up to promote Juneteenth as relevant to Ohio were downright ludicrous. They almost succeeded with the General Assembly until a representative from Gallipolis, Clyde Evans, introduced and was able to pass legislation designating September 22nd as Emancipation Day in Ohio. Clyde by the way Is a friend of mine.

      • Andy Hall said, on June 21, 2017 at 6:57 pm

        Then let me ask you this – do you think there should be some formal, official national recognition of Emancipation?

        • OhioGuy said, on June 21, 2017 at 10:21 pm

          That would not be a bad idea, but it should not be based on the lie that Juneteenth has some national significance. I’ll be glad to tell you off list about a friend of mine, an African American man with a national reputation, who refused to come to Gallipolis as a keynote speaker because he had been duped by the Juneteenth folks into thinking that “these things usually are in June.” He then implied that the Southeastern Ohio event must, therefore, be somehow bogus. The damage Juneteenth disciples have done with their misrepresentations outside of Texas is just horrendous. Though not as damaging as Lost Cause mythology, it is of the same character.

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