On June 19, 1865, Union General Gordon Granger and his troops arrived in Galveston, Texas, to announce the emancipation of all enslaved people. The event took place more than two years after President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation and two months after the April surrender of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee to Union forces. This is what became known as Juneteenth. A holiday, long celebrated in many African American communities, that takes place every year to commemorate the abolition of slavery in Texas and the other Confederate States of America.
On June 17, 2021, the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act was signed into law. Juneteenth, also known as Jubilee Day, Emancipation Day, and Black Independence Day, became designated a federal holiday in the United States to commemorate the emancipation of enslaved African Americans.
Much of the efforts to accomplish this federal designation must be attributed to the decades of work of one woman, 95-year-old Opal Lee, known as the “grandmother of Juneteenth.” Who “at the age of 89, … decided her new life mission was, “… to spread the word about Juneteenth to everybody.”…[s]he decided to start with a walking campaign in cities along a route from her home in Fort Worth, Texas, to Washington, D.C. …Over several weeks, Lee arrived in cities where she’d been invited to speak and walked 2½ miles to symbolize the 2½ years that it took for enslaved people in Texas to learn they were free.” Lee never gave up and was present on June 17, 2021, for signing Juneteenth into law.
Lee’s endurance is symbolic of the history of a people who never gave up hope, even when facing uncertain times. Generations of African Americans will remain forever grateful for her efforts.
Juneteenth holds a variety of meanings for people of African Descent. Please read on as members of the Mercy community of African Descent reflect on the question, “What does Juneteenth mean to you?”
Learn more about Juneteenth:
- National Museum of African American History & Culture: https://nmaahc.si.edu/juneteenth
- Juneteenth: Freedom at Last
- Juneteenth: What You Need to Know
- The history behind Juneteenth and why it resonates today (HR 40) Washington Post:
What does Juneteenth mean to you? — Reflections from members of the Mercy community of African Descent
Benvinda Pereira, RSM
“Juneteenth is the oldest known celebration of the end of slavery in the US. It is an enduring, unbreakable thread of African American history being woven through the tapestry of Mercy. At this moment, with Juneteenth being declared a federal holiday, this is significant to me because—-I am another piece of African American heritage, and this holiday means I too am being appreciated and celebrated.”
Julie Matthews, RSM
“The first time I heard about Juneteenth was last year. It does not mean anything to us in this part of the world. However, as Africans who have been enslaved, we stand in solidarity with our African American sisters and brothers who commemorate this important day and long for the end of racism.”
Executive Director of Association
Belmont, North Carolina
“Juneteenth is a way for this country to recognize and honor the sacrifices and resilience of formerly enslaved people in the US. More importantly, this day creates space for me to openly celebrate the brilliance in which I come from.”
“We are not too familiar with Juneteenth in Guyana, but we are very pleased that it has finally been recognized as a Federal Holiday in the US.
The Associates in CCASA join with the descendants of the enslaved people in the US in celebrating this special day.”
Cora Marie Billings, RSM
“Juneteenth means African Americans and our history are to be celebrated, not just tolerated.
And, having a Juneteenth recognized as a Federal Holiday says to everyone in the United States, regardless of color, that the history of African Americans and our ancestors being freed in 1865 should be celebrated, honored, and respected just like people respect July 4th. It also reminds me that just because a law is passed in the United States, all the citizens the law is supposed to impact do not immediately benefit from it. Case in point, the Emancipation Proclamation was passed on Jan1 1863 and didn’t free the enslaved of Texas until June 19, 1865.”
Mayon Sylvain, RSM
Bronx, New York
“During the minutes before opening your email inviting me to share my thoughts, I was reading on Juneteenth. The history was so impactful on me that I forwarded the information on Juneteenth to my siblings in Guyana and other countries while drawing their attention to August Monday, a public holiday in celebration of Emancipation Day in Guyana.”
Brooklyn, New York
“As an African American, when I see the significant number of events that impact us negatively, I still struggle with the reality of freedom. Is all bleak? No, there have been achievements. However, our freedom is not as straightforward as it may have been on that first Juneteenth Day. Some deny our history and claim that events clearly documented, such as lynching, did not occur. Others deny our equal rights in the workplace, schools, housing, and some states are actively working to restrict the voting rights of African American communities. African Americans also are not free to practice daily routine habits like listening to music and eating ice cream or grocery shopping without the threat of being killed.
Despite these realities, I am reminded of the words of the late representative John Lewis in his Tweet in June 2018; “Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Be hopeful, be optimistic. Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month, or a year, it is the struggle of a lifetime. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.” May getting into “good trouble” bring freedom and the hope that my ancestors experienced on that first Juneteenth.
Reverend Ada Renée Williams
Director, Institute Office of Anti-Racism & Racial Equity
Silver Spring, MD
“I cannot remember a time in my life when Juneteenth was not part of my family celebrations. My memories and continued gatherings are filled with the stories of my ancestors who endured and accomplished living so I can be. Juneteenth is a day of celebration and joy, and when my family expresses deep gratitude to our ancestors.
At the same time, when I think about the federal holiday declaration, I worry that capitalism, commodification, business as usual, and cultural misappropriation will tarnish the precious history behind Juneteenth. Given the recent hunting of Black people in Buffalo and the personal warning sent to me by the shooting of the Black Lives Matter sign in my front yard, I am concerned that our planned celebrations may not be safe.
Holding joy and worry at the same time.