Perhaps the three most significant documents in U.S. history that exemplify America's passion for freedom are the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights and the Emancipation Proclamation. Although each has maintained its rightful place in the annals of American history, only the Bill of Rights and the Constitution have identifiable dates and cultural festivities. Each year, America celebrates the Fourth of July, Constitution Day and Flag Day, all of which have developed into an expression and ceremony of appreciation by the American People with special events emphasizing the historical importance of the Constitution and Bill of Rights.
The Emancipation Proclamation, which is particularly significant to African Americans, has not until recently received its rightful day of national appreciation. With the resurgence of the African American community's celebration of Juneteenth, America is growing in its awareness and appreciation of this highly meaningful document.
The celebration of Juneteenth is not only a showcase event of the African American community's positive contributions to the American way of life, but it also makes a statement for all Americans that the United States is truly the "Land of the Free." Juneteenth is an expression and extension of American freedom and, like the Fourth of July, a time for all Americans to celebrate our independence, human rights, civil rights and freedom.
Juneteenth began in the great state of Texas when Major General Gordon Granger of the Union Army led his troops into the city of Galveston. There, on June 19, 1865, he officially proclaimed freedom for slaves in that state. Granger's ride through Galveston culminated a two-and-a-half year trek through America's deep south. But many states, parishes and counties had been excluded from learning of President Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, leaving millions of African American slaves without their freedom. Thus it was that on this date the African American slaves of Texas and other parts of the South celebrated the final execution of the Emancipation Proclamation, giving them their freedom forever.
The former slaves of Galveston were quick to establish what was to become a tradition for African American communities across the United States. One the evening of June 19, 1865, thousands flooded the streets of Galveston, rejoicing in their newly-announced freedom The sweet smell of barbecue smoke filled the air. Dancing feet pounded the dirt roads and harmonic voices sung spirituals. This was the day, Juneteenth, that would forever commemorate African American Freedom.
In the immediate years to follow, Galveston and other Southern cities began to structure Juneteenth activities. Not only was there food, dance and song, but Juneteenth provided the opportunity to express to young and old alike the fact that African Americans are a proud people with past, present and future contributions to American society. Religions organizations were hosts to revivals. Civic, political, business and social organizations distributed information and established educational and recreational competitions. At the beginning of the every Juneteenth celebration, there was a dramatic rendering of that most important of documents--the Emancipation Proclamation.
As African Americans from Texas and other parts of the South began to migrate to the North, East and West, they took with them the tradition of Juneteenth, spreading the word that African American Freedom has roots in the celebration of Juneteenth. Although for years Juneteenth continued to exist predominately as a local and neighborhood festival, today it is emerging as a major expression of African American culture. Like Cinco de Mayo, Saint Patrick's Day and Chinese New Year, the celebration of Juneteenth acknowledges the price, history, culture and freedom of an important part of American society and helps to unify the nation as a whole.
Reproduced from the 1997 Berkeley Juneteenth Festival Program with permission from the Berkeley Juneteenth Association, Inc.