“I never heard about Juneteenth. I grew up on the southside of Chicago, and I only heard about Juneteenth when I came to Minnesota,” said Troderick Holmes, a volunteer for Bethune Park’s “Juneteenth: Celebrating Freedom Day” in Minneapolis, as the park’s Juneteenth board and planning committee gathered at the adjacent Phyllis Wheatley Community Center Monday afternoon. “Juneteenth is special, man. It’s not just for blacks. I think it’s a day for everyone, because it’s a day of peace, love, and happiness.”
June 19 is the anniversary of the day in 1865 that Union soldiers marched into Texas and made law the last 250,000 slaves’ emancipation, which is why Juneteenth is also known as “Black Independence Day” and “the Black 4th of July.”
Minnesota was the fourth state to recognize Juneteenth as a state holiday, and President Barack Obama declared Juneteenth a national day of observance in 2014.
“Truthfully, as a child, it just meant going to a park and having fun at an outdoor carnival,” said Lorna Pettis, a board member at Bethune and organizer behind this year’s celebration. “The significance of Juneteenth wasn’t really taught then. Now, I think it’s great because it gives the opportunity for children — not just black children, but all children — to learn what Juneteenth means around the celebration of black folks’ freedom. We’re teaching our children what may or may not have ever been taught as far as our culture and history and the significance of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X and all those leaders before us that tried to get social justice and everything in place, and everything they don’t teach in schools anymore.”
The Bethune Park celebration (11 a.m. to 6 p.m., Saturday; 1304 N. 10th Ave., Minneapolis) is but one Juneteenth event planned around the state. Other Saturday events are the Twin Cities Juneteenth Celebration at North Mississippi Regional Park (5116 N. Mississippi Dr., Minneapolis); 2nd Annual Juneteenth Celebration—Mankato at the Verizon Center (1 Civic Center Plaza); Rochesterfest/Juneteenth Celebration at Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Park (1738 E. Center St., Rochester); Juneteenth Celebration 2019 at Central Hillside Community Center (12 E. 4th St., Duluth). Festivities continue Tuesday (5-7 p.m.) at Webber Park Library (4440 Humboldt Ave. N., Minneapolis), and Wednesday (6-9 p.m.) with a Juneteenth BBQ at Highland Park Pool House (1313-1333 Montreal Ave., St. Paul).
If Juneteenth feels like an underground celebration, it’s likely because “slavery” is the great skeleton in this country’s closet and thus not easily talked about in any context. National holiday or not, Juneteenth deserves our attention, imagination, and support for its lifting up of ancestors and freedom fighters in these new days of old white racism. For, as Jason Soles told last Friday’s opening night audience of the Humanize My Hoodie art exhibit in Minneapolis, “slavery never ended.”
“Juneteenth is actually the oldest celebration within the African-American community, commemorating the end of slavery,” said Lee Jordan, state and Midwest regional director for the national Juneteenth celebration, on Monday at Bethune. “It celebrates our history here in the United States. It’s always been important, but we’re still not celebrated enough for the things that we’ve accomplished, and Juneteenth is a big part of that. It’s a platform to celebrate what we have contributed.”
Juneteenth is the oldest known celebration of the ending of slavery.
“Dating back into 1865, it was on June 19th that the Union soldiers, led by Major General Gordon Granger landed at Galveston, TX with news that the war had ended and that all slaves were now free. Note that this was two and a half years after The Emancipation Proclamation had little impact on the Texans due to minimal number of Union troops to enforce the new executive order. However, with the surrender of General Lee in April of 1865, and the arrival of General Granger’s regiment, the forces were finally strong enough to influence and overcome the resistance.
“Today, the Twin Cities Juneteenth Celebration, founded 30 years ago, is said to be one of the two largest Juneteenth Celebrations in the United States, surpassing even the Texas celebrations where Juneteenth is a state holiday.
Texas was the first state to declare Juneteenth a state holiday, and the national Juneteenth page and Facebook page are the best resources on the holiday’s history and current events — including its precarious roots. According to Mental Floss:
When freed slaves tried to celebrate the first anniversary of the announcement a year later, they were faced with a problem: Segregation laws were expanding rapidly, and there were no public places or parks they were permitted to use. So, in the 1870s, former slaves pooled together $800 and purchased 10 acres of land, which they deemed ‘Emancipation Park.’ It was the only public park and swimming pool in the Houston area that was open to African Americans until the 1950s.
Juneteenth celebrations waned for several decades. It wasn’t because people no longer wanted to celebrate freedom — but, as Slate so eloquently put it, “it’s difficult to celebrate freedom when your life is defined by oppression on all sides.” Juneteenth celebrations waned during the era of Jim Crow laws until the civil rights movement of the 1960s, when the Poor People’s March planned by Martin Luther King Jr. was purposely scheduled to coincide with the date. The march brought Juneteenth back to the forefront, and when march participants took the celebrations back to their home states, the holiday was reborn.”
And reborn again, and with a flourish, in Bethune Park this Saturday.
“This is our second year here doing the ‘Celebration of Freedom Day,’ and it’s an awesome event where people can come out to the park and play like I did as a child, and still learn,” said Pettis. “The older kids are learning, and some of the adults don’t even know what it’s about, or even its history. So it’s a learning experience for the community, and it’s a community event. It’s not geared solely to African-Americans, but it is African-American freedom day.”