With the release of films such as 12 Years a Slave and The Birth of a Nation and the re-make of the “Roots” mini-series in 2016, we have seen our fair share of the history of black slavery. However, the past few years may have marked the beginning of a burgeoning interest of millennials and younger in exploring slavery, the eventual emancipation of slaves and beyond.
While the official date of the Emancipation Proclamation freeing slaves was enacted on Jan. 1, 1863, it would take two years for slaves in Galveston, Texas to learn of their freedom on June 19, 1865 when Union General Gordon Granger arrived in the city and told them they were free. In years since, June 19 began to be celebrated across the country as Juneteenth and in 1980, the Texan legislature established Juneteenth as a state holiday. Still, the celebration of Juneteenth, which has been inconsistent throughout the course of history, has yet to achieve the recognition and popularity of other official American holidays.
Rev. Ronald V. Meyers Sr., chairman of the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation, has been working since 1994 when he helped organize the foundation that is working to have Juneteenth recognized as a national American holiday. “Forty-five states recognize Juneteenth as a state holiday or a special day of recognition or observance. We’re still missing North Dakota, South Dakota, New Hampshire, Montana, and Hawaii,” says Meyers.
Myers learned about Juneteenth through celebrations in his hometown of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. “We had one of the largest celebrations around and it was then that I began to understand the history of our freedom in America, and I took that with me wherever I went.”
By 1994, Myers, who was living in Louisiana then, met with Juneteenth enthusiasts from across the country at Christian Unity Baptist Church in New Orleans. He was selected to be the chairman of National Juneteenth Observance Foundation at the meeting. “We wanted to work together for greater recognition of Juneteenth to make it like Flag Day and have a day set aside for the celebration.”
While Myers has been successful in securing senate resolutions in 2014 and 2015, designating June 19 as Juneteenth, he had hoped to gain former President Barack Obama’s support of Juneteenth by his last year in office.
“When President Obama was a state senator in Illinois, he supported legislation to officially recognize Juneteenth in 2003. And when he was a U.S. senator, he sponsored legislation to recognize Juneteenth in the U.S. Senate in 2006. But he hasn’t issued a proclamation to make Juneteenth Independence Day a National Day of Observance as president or held a Juneteenth celebration at the White House. I don’t know why since the White House was built by slaves.”
While Obama did not issue a proclamation, he did issue a statement on June 19, 2015 supporting the observance of Juneteenth which was posted on the White House website. He also referenced the shooting at Emanuel A.M.E., which occurred a year ago on June 17. To read the statement, click here.
The home of author and illustrator Floyd Cooper’s great-grandparents who were slaves. (Photo Courtesy of Floyd Cooper)
Similarly to Meyers, Floyd Cooper, children’s book author and illustrator, remembers celebrating Juneteenth in Haskell, Oklahoma where he grew up. “I’m from a very large extended family, and all of my cousins, aunts, uncles and everyone would get together and have big cookouts for Juneteenth.”
He also remembers hearing about his family’s history from his great-grandparents who were freed slaves and lived in a home built from stone in Oklahoma. They migrated to Oklahoma after packing up in a covered wagon and leaving Texas. Before that, they moved from Georgia where they worked as slaves on a plantation owned by an Irish man. “They said he never whipped them which was important for them,” Cooper says.
His great-grandparents also kept a photograph of one of their slave ancestors from Georgia in their home. “I remember being a child looking up at that photograph. It was in one of those oval frames.”
While he hasn’t been able to link his great-grandparents directly to the slaves who heard about the Emancipation Proclamation on June 19 in Galveston, Texas, he did draw from his own family’s history to write and illustrate Juneteenth for Mazie, a children’s picture book of the history of Juneteenth which was published in 2015 .
In the book, Mazie’s father teaches young Mazie about the struggles and the triumphs of her family’s past as they prepare to celebrate Juneteenth. “Juneteenth is a great American holiday,” Cooper says.
However, some are not in favor of celebrating nor recognizing Juneteenth. Ronda Racha Penrice, author of African American History For Dummies, is one of those detractors.
“[Juneteenth] reinforces Black people as passive and as people waiting for others to free them when black people in the South would tell Union soldiers when they showed up that they were free and come and set up camp with Union soldiers,” Penrice says. “Many of them wrote letters to the White House for instructions as to what to do. This influenced the drafting of the Emancipation Proclamation.”
Penrice also doesn’t believe that June 19 is a particularly special day as slaves throughout the South became aware of their freedom on different days.
“Emancipation Day celebrations took place May 8 for some and August 8 for others.” Penrice also pointed out in her book that many of the celebrations stopped after 1920 when black people moved to larger cities and wanted to disassociate from their rural pasts.
However, while Meyers agrees that slaves learned about their freedom on various days, he still believes that freedom from slavery should be celebrated.
“My challenge to African Americans is ‘What day do you celebrate our freedom?'” he says. “On the 4th of July when Americans of African descent were still caught up in the tyranny of slavery?”
Do you and the people you know observe Juneteenth? Why or why not? Sound off below.
Myrlie Evers-Williams, widow of slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers, speaks to students during the National Civil Rights Museum Freedom Awards Public Forum at Temple Deliverance. (Photo: Mike Brown/Newscom)
Last week, I was excited to read the Washington Post article stating that Myrlie Evers-Williams, wife of slain civil rights icon Medgar Evers, was going to deliver the invocation at President Obama’s inauguration later this month. This was a historic announcement, since Evers would be the first female who wasn’t a clergy member to deliver what has been deemed “America’s most prominent prayer.” Add to that the fact that she’s a black woman and you can sense the pride I felt reading those words. In a month that marks the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, to deem this a special occasion wouldn’t do it justice. Not to mention that this is just the second time that the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday has fallen on Inauguration Day. Later this year we’ll also mark the 50th anniversary of King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech. In a matter of weeks, an African American man will be sworn in for a second term as the president of the United States. For me, there’s a sense of divine providence in the events leading up to this day. Ms. Evers will stand atop the same steps on which King stood to decry our nation’s treatment of African Americans in this country.
Today, I received some disheartening news. Louie Giglio, pastor of Passion City Church in Atlanta,
was removed withdrew as a participant in Obama’s inauguration program. According to an inaugural planner, he withdrew over remarks about homosexuality he made in a sermon he preached in the mid-’90s. The sermon was titled “In Search of a Standard—A Christian Response to Homosexuality.” Man, it must have taken a Herculean Google effort to find that one. But that’s how the public vets people nowadays. Google searches produce “little nuggets” about people that others may use against them. President Obama didn’t have to Google Pastor Giglio, though: He had become aware of Giglio’s work combating human trafficking last year after students at the annual Passion Conference in Atlanta raised millions of dollars for the cause. This year the campaign raised over $3.3 million dollars.
In the interest of full disclosure, my wife and I attended Giglio’s church for over a year when we lived in Atlanta. We loved it. Giglio was genuine, Christ-centered in his preaching, and humble. Today, he’s been called everything from an unrepentant bigot to a pastor on the outlier of mainstream religious thinking (which might not actually be a bad thing). My dream of seeing a representative of the Civil Rights Movement share the platform with someone who genuinely cares and is doing something about modern-day slavery was crushed today. With more people enslaved today (approximately 27 million) than any other time in human history, this monumental occasion could have had a significant, visceral impact for African Americans. Most of these modern-day slaves are “people of color.”
Instead, we revisit an issue that cropped up in 2009 when Rick Warren was selected to give the benediction—a similar outcry that yielded different results. The difference? The President hadn’t expressed his evolving view on homosexuality at that time. But is this really a civil rights issue? I need not go into the matter of civil rights. I think Voddie Baucham does a pretty good job of addressing the issue here. Dr. Russell Moore suggests that what we may have is a de facto establishment of a state church.
As Moore points out:
The problem is not that [Giglio] wants to exclude homosexuals or others from the public square or of their civil rights. The problem is that he won’t say that they can go to heaven without repentance. That’s not a civil issue, but a religious test of orthodoxy.
The truth is that politicizing prayer is the first essential step to creating a state religion. We’re starting to enter the politically correct season of public prayer. So what’s the new standard? What’s the prerequisite when vetting someone to pray for our nation? Offending no one? We know from Scripture that’s impossible. Someone will always be offended. In fact, held to this standard, Jesus Himself would have been disqualified. Were that the benchmark, we’d have an empty podium on January 21st.
Giglio released this statement today:
I am honored to be invited by the President to give the benediction at the upcoming inaugural on January 21. Though the President and I do not agree on every issue, we have fashioned a friendship around common goals and ideals, most notably, ending slavery in all its forms.
Due to a message of mine that has surfaced from 15-20 years ago, it is likely that my participation, and the prayer I would offer, will be dwarfed by those seeking to make their agenda the focal point of the inauguration. Clearly, speaking on this issue has not been in the range of my priorities in the past fifteen years. Instead, my aim has been to call people to ultimate significance as we make much of Jesus Christ.
Neither I, nor our team, feel it best serves the core message and goals we are seeking to accomplish to be in a fight on an issue not of our choosing, thus I respectfully withdraw my acceptance of the President’s invitation. I will continue to pray regularly for the President, and urge the nation to do so. I will most certainly pray for him on Inauguration Day.
Our nation is deeply divided and hurting, and more than ever need God’s grace and mercy in our time of need.
My greatest desire is that we not be distracted from the things we are focused on…seeing people in our city come to know Jesus, and speaking up for the last and least of these throughout the world.
In my opinion, a grace-filled response to critics. In the coming weeks, the nation will be watching intently. Forget the replacement refs controversy last fall with the NFL—Giglio’s replacement will likely get tons of attention from the faith community, and the nation in general. Not because this person prays more eloquently than Giglio. Not because there’s a symbiotic relationship between this person’s prayer and Ms. Evers-Williams’ prayer. But because the selection will likely represent the evolving ethos of our pluralistic society. Disheartening? Yes. Unexpected? No. When it boils down to it, the words of Robert Godfrey ring true: neither the Republican Party or Democratic Party care about the cause of Christ. But I’m glad there are people like Pastor Giglio in this world who do.