(This is a reprint of an article I wrote for my newspaper back in June of 2002. Happy Independence Day to my people!
"The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free."
Major General Gordon Granger
June 19, 1865 - Galveston, Texas
The celebrations that followed the reading of this proclamation signaled the birth of the African-American Independence Day tradition, known as "Juneteenth." It is one that has lasted over 100 years, and today is celebrated in countless cities across the United States. It was, without question, the most momentous "dividing time" for slaves, particularly in the state of Texas since they waited two and half years to taste freedom.
This new reality, for American slaves and slave-holders slowly but surely changed the face of this country, enabling those once considered chattel the rights that had been afforded whites since our country's inception.
What is very telling and what makes "Juneteenth" even more significant is that the Emancipation Proclamation had been issued by President Lincoln on Sept. 22, 1862. In that issuance, he warned those states continuing to rebel against the Union that they had until Jan. 1, 1863, to halt all rebellion and return to the Union or he would declare their slaves forever free.
In his letter to A.J. Hodges explaining his reasons for the proclamation, Lincoln stated, "I am naturally anti-slavery." However, as president of the United States, he explained, "In taking the oath, I understood too, that in ordinary civil administration, this oath forbade me to practically indulge my primary abstract judgment on the question of slavery."
A true politician, his drafting of the Emancipation Proclamation was purely a military measure designed to divest the Confederacy of its slave labor and increase the ranks of the Union Army.
Initially, Confederate states (my own South Carolina being one of them) totally ignored the proclamation. Coupled with the fact that it did not apply to those slave-holding states that did NOT rebel against the Union, history tells us that about 800,000 slaves were not affected by the Emancipation Proclamation. Were it not for the Civil War and the 13th Amendment, slavery may not have been outlawed.
Whatever the reasons, the impact of this news was seismic. Jubilation reigned on most plantations as slaves accepted the realization that freedom had finally come. While some slaves stayed, many left the plantations because to them, freedom was not freedom without the actual, physical liberation.
I never really knew why I loved strawberry soda so much, but it seems the origins may well be found in "Juneteenth" celebrations. It is said that strawberry sodas and barbecuing have become synonymous with these celebrations. It is through the barbecuing particularly, that today's participants can share in the spirit and aromas that their ancestors - those newly emancipated African-Americans - would have experienced during their ceremonies. As a result, the barbecue pit is often established as the center of attention at these celebrations.
African-Americans also celebrate the Fourth of July in honor of American Independence Day. But "Juneteenth" is more of a symbol of freedom for many, simply because blacks were not free when America obtained its independence. It is an historical "dividing time" reminding us of the triumph of the human spirit over the cruelty of slavery and demonstrates pride in the marvelous legacy of resistance and perseverance left us by our ancestors.
Effective Jan. 1, 1980, June 19 is celebrated as a legal state holiday in the state of Texas, and rightfully so. It is the only state in the union to do so. San Antonio enjoys a month-long celebration marked with guest speakers, picnics, parades and family gatherings.
The length of the celebration is not most important - that it is celebrated is. Therefore, it is absolutely fitting that we celebrate at the African-American Heritage Festival being held this weekend. Let it be a time for reflection and rejoicing, a time for assessment and self-improvement and for planning our future as full and equal citizens of the United States.
"Juneteenth, A Novel" was a 40-year work-in-progress of Ralph Ellison, author of "Invisible Man." Thank you to his widow, Fanny (Ellison died in New York City in 1994) and John F. Callahan, his literary executor who edited it. I don't care what the young, "new," Black Democrats have to say really. I grew up with Ellison and I firmly believe in George Santayana's original quote, "Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it."
Hope the senator from Illinois doesn't try to continue to "work" the Black community by capitalizing on this day! Likening himself to Lincoln (who was allegedly anti-slavery and the politically expedient "freer of the slaves"), is so counter to "the heart of the matter!" Go to the Library of Congress and read all of Lincoln's letters and see what he really thought about our Black asses. Liberia ring a bell?