Commemorating Juneteenth – ep.140

Supporting Black-Owned Business – ep.139
June 13, 2024
Showcasing: Becoming Socially Conscious – ep.141
June 27, 2024

Join me as I delve into the rich history of Juneteenth, exploring its origins from June 19, 1865, when Union troops arrived in Galveston, Texas to deliver the news of freedom for enslaved men and women two years after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued to acknowledging the tireless efforts of Opal Lee who fiercely advocated for Juneteenth to be recognized as a federal holiday of Black independence. 

Melyssa Barrett:  Welcome to the Jali Podcast. I’m your host, Melissa Barrett. This podcast is for those who are interested in the conversation around equity, diversity, and inclusion. Each week I’ll be interviewing a guest who has something special to share or is actively part of building solutions in the space. Let’s get started.

Welcome to the Jali Podcast, where we explore the rich tapestry of our history, culture, and stories that shape our world. We are all about diversity, equity, and inclusion here. And today we are diving into the celebration of Juneteenth. So whether you’re familiar with Juneteenth or just hearing about it for the first time, we’re going to give you a little bit of an understanding of its significance and talk a little bit about modern day celebrations. And we’ll even tell you a little bit about Opal Lee, the grandmother of Juneteenth. So Juneteenth celebrated on June 19th, commemorates the end of slavery in the United States. The name, as you can tell, is a blend of June the month and 19th marking the day in 1865 when Union General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas and announced the end of the Civil War and the emancipation of enslaved African-Americans. This was of course two and a half years after President Abraham Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1st, 1863.

The delay, many say, was for many reasons, but we always have to remember there was also a minimal presence of union troops in Texas to enforce the new law. Let’s just talk about Galveston because I think sometimes when you think of Texas, most people who think about Juneteenth think about Texas. But I always really wanted to understand what was actually going on in Galveston and what is the historical significance of Galveston as the birthplace of Juneteenth. It’s a little profound because the city now a central point for Juneteenth celebrations. It draws visitors from across the nation. And Juneteenth is not only a day of remembrance, but also a celebration of African-American culture, resilience, and the ongoing fight for equality and justice. This year I have so far been to three Juneteenth celebrations, and I’m looking forward to going to one more tomorrow on actual Juneteenth.

But the understanding of the context of Galveston on June 19th, 1865 kind of enriches our appreciation of Juneteenth and it’s enduring importance in American history. And one of the questions I always get asked is, were people actually aware or did they just hear about the fact that they were free that day? And I would say the situation regarding awareness in Texas was a little bit complex. So while the Emancipation Proclamation was issued by President Abraham Lincoln and went into effect on January 1st, 1863, declaring all enslaved people in Confederate states to be free, its immediate impact on places like Texas was limited due to a number of different factors. When I think about Galveston, I think about the geographic isolation and lack of union presence. So Texas was geographically isolated from much of the conflict and had a relatively small union military presence during most of the Civil War.

So that meant that the enforcement of the proclamation was, in some cases, I wouldn’t call it impossible, but it was more rare in Texas until the Confederacy was defeated and union troops could really take control. There were also some communication barriers during the 1860s. Obviously communication wasn’t as instantaneous as it is today. News traveled a little slowly, and again, this was a little bit of a remote area in Galveston, and I would say I’m sure some plantation owners and local authorities knew about the proclamation, even if it was widely disseminated, it wasn’t enforced, and there was absolutely resistance from slaveholders. Many slaveholders resisted the idea of emancipation, and obviously they had a vested interest in maintaining the institution of slavery, withheld that information from people to maintain their control. And additionally, the official announcement wasn’t until June 19th, 1865 when General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston with sufficient troops to enforce the proclamation.

So general order number three was made, and the order explicitly informed the people of Texas that all enslaved people were free. So this marked the effective end of slavery in Texas as Granger’s order was backed by Union military Force making it enforceable this day, June 19th, 1865 became the historical basis for the Juneteenth celebration marking the true beginning of freedom for many enslaved people in Texas. General Granger’s announcement not only informed Texas residents about the end of slavery, but also symbolized a turning point for the entire nation. The former slaves obviously celebrated their newfound freedom with festivities, prayer meetings, family gatherings, and it would in fact lay the foundation for what would become this enduring tradition. So what does Juneteenth look like today? It has evolved significantly over the years, obviously, expanding from Texas to many communities across the United States, even in my little town that I live in here in California, in the Central Valley.

Some of the ways that Juneteenth is celebrated today, obviously there are community gatherings, festivals, many cities host large scale events that include parades, concerts, cultural performances. One of the things that most Juneteenth celebrations, if not all do, is make sure that we feature local artists, musicians, but we also highlight African-American culture and history. And so I know for me, my husband of course, being a storyteller, he always wanted to make sure that any Juneteenth celebration that we were involved in creating had historical context, had a focus on the history, African-American history, the history of Juneteenth, and really incorporated some education for everyone, not just African-Americans, because a lot of times we may not even know our own history, but for everybody. So educational events, museums, libraries, do workshops that focus on the history of the Civil War, the civil rights movement, and the events really aim to educate the public and foster a deep understanding of the historical context of Juneteenth.

So when you hear people say, this is our July 4th, we think about the Declaration of Independence, but for African-Americans, we really think about Juneteenth and there may be family reunions, picnics, reflection and prayer, a lot of activism and advocacy, making sure that people understand what is happening in our country, and we don’t necessarily care how you vote, but you need to vote, and we need to make sure generations of people understand the importance of our vote. Juneteenth also inspires a wealth of artistic expression, whether it be poetry, literature, visual arts, artists and writers often explore themes of freedom, resilience, the African-American experience. I certainly absolutely love highlighting African-American books, especially children’s books, because when I was little, I didn’t see a whole lot of books that incorporated people that looked like me. So it’s wonderful to see so many books being created that actually showcase our stories, our people.

So in recent years, Juneteenth has gained a lot more recognition, obviously officially being declared a federal holiday in the United States in 2021. I remember in some of the previous episodes, you may have heard me talk about when I was little, we would literally sit out of school. My parents would keep us at home from school on Martin Luther King’s birthday in protest to make sure that Martin Luther King had a holiday. It was that important. And Juneteenth is one of those days that it really underscores the importance of our freedom and really tells the story. So designation of it being a federal holiday I think has really brought a lot of visibility to Juneteenth, hopefully encouraging more people to learn about it, and the pivotal moment that it highlights in American history. A major force behind this national recognition is Opal Lee. And I don’t think anybody would recognize or say anything about Juneteenth without highlighting Opal Lee because she is affectionately known as the grandmother of Juneteenth, and she was born in 1926 in Marshall, Texas, and she a tireless advocate for making Juneteenth a national holiday.

Her journey is absolutely inspiring and humbling, and in 2016, at the age of 89, so for all of you that think that maybe you’re too old to make a difference, or I don’t know how old you are that those of you that are listening, but let me just tell you, Opal Lee began her symbolic walk from Fort Worth, Texas to Washington, DC at the age of 89. She covered two and a half miles in cities along the way to represent the two and a half years it took for enslaved people in Texas to learn that they were free. Her dedication, commitment, and activism brought significant attention to the cause. She galvanized public support, she put pressure on lawmakers, and her efforts really culminated in a major victory when it was declared a federal holiday in 2021. Her advocacy serves as a powerful reminder of the impact one person can have in driving change and honoring history.

And while Juneteenth is a day of celebration, it also serves as a reminder of the ongoing journey toward equality and justice. It’s a time to honor the past, acknowledge the progress made, and commit to continuing the work necessary to achieve true racial equity. Al Lee’s story underscores this commitment and really exemplifies the spirit of Juneteenth. So as we reflect on Juneteenth this, let’s remember the resilience and the strength of those who fought for freedom and those who continue to fight for justice today. I hope you’re one of those people. And whether it’s through celebration, education, activism, we can all contribute to the legacy of Juneteenth and help shape a more inclusive and equitable future. Thank you for joining me on this journey through the history and celebration of Juneteenth and the remarkable contributions of Opal Lee. Hopefully this episode provided you a sliver of information about the understanding and appreciation for this important holiday, and hopefully you will dive and dig for more. So don’t forget to subscribe, share and tune in next time for more stories that shape our world, and let’s create that more inclusive and equitable future. Until then, I’m Melissa Barrett signing off.

Thanks for joining me on the Jali Podcast. Please subscribe so you won’t miss an episode. See you next week.