Emancipation Day celebration in Richmond, Virginia, ca. 1905.

Jaala Brown looks back at her own family history to find out how different generations of African Americans had little to no knowledge of Juneteenth, one of the most significant days in American history.  

Two years ago today, if someone were to ask me, “What is Juneteenth?” I probably wouldn’t be able to tell them. It wasn’t until I turned eighteen that I became aware of the holiday and why it was such an important celebration, specifically for African Americans, like myself, in the United States. 

Growing up in America, I was taught at a very young age about Independence Day. I remember growing up continually wearing my red, white and blue outfits, going to the July 4th fireworks shows, not even knowing there was another holiday that I could have and should have been celebrating: Juneteenth. The historical truth is, not all Americans were free until that very day. 

What is Juneteenth? 

After the Civil War, on January 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing all enslaved African Americans. Despite this, many slave owners decided to keep this information from slaves, resulting in Union troops having to intervene to enforce the declaration. 

On June 19, 1865, or 156 years ago today to be exact, Maj. Gen Gordon Granger of the Union Army told the people of Galveston, Texas, that Lincoln had freed all slaves two years ago. 

“The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free,” said Granger. 

The state of Texas was the very last Confederate state to have received the news of the Emancipation Proclamation, officially marking the day in history when all slaves were granted their freedom. Six months later, Congress officially ratified the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution, which abolished slavery. 

Juneteenth Emancipation Day Celebration, June 19, 1900, Texas.

Texas became the first state to hold Juneteenth celebrations. A year later, on June 19, 1866, black people in Texas took the time to hold prayer meetings, singing, and other gatherings to celebrate the year of newfound freedom. A few years later, African Americans in many different states began celebrating the holiday annually. 

Thanks to Texas Representative Al Edwards of Houston, the state became the first to make Juneteenth a state holiday. Representative Edwards proposed a bill asking for Juneteenth to be recognized as a state holiday. After the bill passed in the Texas House and Senate, then-Governor William Clements signed the bill into law in June of 1979. The bill establishing the state holiday went into effect on Jan 1, 1980. 

As of today, 48 states and the District of Columbia recognize Juneteenth, but it was only on Thursday, June 17, 2021, that Juneteenth was declared a federal holiday.

How much knowledge do people have of Juneteenth?

According to a new survey by Gallup, only 12% of American adults know “a lot” about the Juneteenth holiday. 25% are reported to know “some” information, 34% reported to know “a little,” and 28% reported to know “nothing at all” about the holiday. 

For a good portion of my life, I had no idea what Juneteenth was, and I am black. I always knew about Texas being the last state to free its slaves, but I still had no idea a Juneteenth holiday came from that history. 

My parents, now both in their fifties, told me they found out about Juneteenth at around the same age as me, at the end of high school and beginning of college. 

“It was a big movement when Malcolm X came out, and everybody was pro-black. That’s when I found out about it. It was a real big push for Black History and knowing your history.” my father told me.

Malcolm X was a Spike Lee film that came out in 1992, where Denzel Washington played the human rights activist, Malcolm X, who advocated for black power during the Civil Rights Movement. 

 Denzel Washington as Malcolm X. Photograph: Allstar/Cinetext/Warner Bros

“I heard about it when I was in high school, and I remember reading an article about Juneteenth once when I was in high school, but that’s pretty much it from what I remember,” my mother revealed. 

I turned to my grandparents, who lived through segregation, to tell me their knowledge of the Juneteenth holiday. 

My paternal grandmother told me she learned about Juneteenth,  “Maybe 10 or 15 years ago, and that’s because of my association with the National Council of Negro Women, the NAACP, and the Sisters in the Spirit, they would celebrate Juneteenth, with the program or literature. That’s when I learned about it.” 

The first time my paternal grandfather learned about Juneteenth was in high school. “I probably was in the ninth grade. I went to an all-black school, so black history was a big celebration in terms of February.” 

My younger sister Joy, who’s fifteen, informed me that she had no idea Juneteenth was a holiday until last year. 

“It wasn’t until after George Floyd’s death that I realized what Juneteenth was and why we should celebrate it,” she said. 

After George Floyd’s death and the force of the Black Lives Matter Movement, many discussions about race in America came to the forefront, allowing the conversation of Juneteenth to be brought to light like never before.

My twenty-year-old best friend Camille also expressed that she learned about the holiday after the events of last year. 

“I just learned about it last year. After George Floyd’s murder, racism became a heavy topic. I believe that because many black people felt the same sense of anger after Floyd’s death. We all collectively decided to highlight Juneteenth and its need for celebration in America.” 

Why don’t many Americans have much knowledge of Juneteenth despite this being commemorated since 1866?

I turned to my grandmothers for answers to find out that they both share similar recollections. 

“I didn’t know about it until last year. They never taught us about it in schools back in the day,” my maternal grandma revealed. 

My paternal grandmother echoed the experience. “All I knew is that it was segregation, and that’s all I was taught. My mother went to Tuskegee, that’s when we learned black history, but I didn’t learn about Galveston and Juneteenth at home.” 

My paternal grandmother, who attended Catholic School growing up, remembered that nun mentioned that the Catholic Church has schools for the white kids and the black kids in the south. “I objected. I thought that was wrong. I stood up, and we got into a conversation. They mentioned how slavery and teaching kids separately was okay. I almost had to go to the principal’s office because I was so upset about that.” 

President Biden signs a bill to officially make Juneteenth a federal holiday. ( Photo :©WhiteHouse)

My paternal grandfather, who also faced the harsh reality of segregation, said that “Attending a segregated school, you talk about ‘Black History’. Understanding Black history became significant about Juneteenth. Back then, it did not have this significance from the standpoint that it does now.”

My mother, who also didn’t receive much education on Juneteenth, told me that she doesn’t think she learned about Juneteenth from Richmond Public Schools.

“It wasn’t taught in our schools. I went to a predominantly white school, and it wasn’t taught in elementary, middle, or high school,” my father reaffirmed. 

Decades later, education has not changed. 

An entire generation later, I am talking to my best friend Camile about the same problems. “A part of it has to do with our education. Schools need to make it more of a priority teaching black history,” she told me. 

Camille and I, now studying at George Mason University, both attended the same high school. As my father’s high school, ours was predominantly white, precisely because we lived in a predominantly white town, resulting in very few black teachers. 

From my recollection, the only time Black history was discussed was during the short month of February for Black History Month and during the slavery portion of the U.S. History curriculum. 

“Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, Frederick Douglas, Booker T. Washington, you know the usual. That’s about the only black history we got, year after,” said  Camille. 

Rosa Parks with King (left), 1955

My sister, who now attends the same, predominantly white high school Camille and I once did, tells me the same thing. 

“I hear the same thing every year. At first, I was like I’m not the one who needs the black history.  It’s the people who aren’t black at my school who need to know about people like me. But then I realized I’m black, and I don’t even know about Juneteenth. We all need a more extensive black history so we can gain a deeper understanding of what went on in America.” 

This discussion comes after the heated debate of Critical Race Theory being taught in the classroom, the concept that racism systematically functions in all aspects of society. 

“You cannot fix what you continue to deny is broken. You can only fix that which you acknowledge is broken. You cannot fix racism until you acknowledge racism. And it’s not just racism brawling. It’s systemic racism and its unconscious racism,” said my paternal grandfather. 

“I think one of the key things that have been missed back when I was in school, you had something that was called ‘American history,’ and you also had ‘Black history.’ The key is, Black history is part of American history, ” my paternal grandfather added.

Despite many advocating for critical race theory (CRT) to be taught, many individuals have opposed this from happening. Republican legislators have proposed laws restricting how teachers can discuss racism and sexism in the classroom. So far, five states, including Idaho, Tennessee, Texas, Oklahoma, and Iowa, have signed bills into law doing so. 

Biden welcomes at the White House Miss Opal Lee, a daughter of Texas, the grandmother of the movement to make Juneteenth a federal holiday. ( Photo: ©WhiteHouse)

Ironically, at the same time, when lawmakers are attempting to ban curriculum such as Juneteenth from reaching a classroom, the House passed a bill 415-14 that would make Juneteenth. On June 17, President Biden signed the bill into law to commemorate the end of slavery. 

In response to the bill signing, my paternal grandmother stated, “It’s the truth, and the truth will win in the end; that’s the point of this. It took 156 years for us to say, okay, it happened, it’s a federal holiday, but the truth always comes out in the end.” 

She added, “We have so many contributions to this country. They need to be recognized.” 

After watching the signing, my paternal grandfather stated, “It was just an excellent feeling to see that finally, this is being recognized. It brings to light why there even is a Juneteenth.” 

Juneteenth is a day for all to know about, but specifically for African Americans to celebrate liberation. It’s a day to recognize the day our ancestors finally felt free. It’s a day to acknowledge how far we, as black people, have come. And it’s a day to indulge in and be proud of our blackness. That’s what my family and I will be celebrating.  

Jaala Brown

Jaala Brown is Gen Z Voice at The Pavlovic Today.

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