Celebrating a Second Independence Day: A Juneteenth Reading List

Miss Juneteenth waves to the crowd during a celebration parade in Denver, 2015. (Joe Amon/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

June 19, also known as Juneteenth, marks the day when, more than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation was enacted, slaves in Texas were informed of their freedom. As the National Museum of African-American History and Culture notes in a Tumblr post, it could — and arguably should — be celebrated as a “second independence day.” But as the museum writes, “Though it has long been celebrated among the African American community it is a history that has been marginalized and still remains largely unknown to the wider public.”

This morning, the White House issued a statement on Juneteenth that didn’t land well. USA Today compared his statement to that of President Barack Obama, highlighting, as a commentator at the Independent Journal Review also noted, that Trump chose to praise a white person where Obama focused on the freed slaves. For more on Juneteenth, we’ve collected stories that explain the fraught history of the holiday, and the need for celebration.

1. “What Is Juneteeth?” (Henry Louis Gates, Jr., The Root)

Gates gives a thorough overview of the history of Juneteenth, including a look at other days worthy of celebration.

The Emancipation Proclamation itself, ending slavery in the Confederacy (at least on paper), had taken effect two-and-a-half years before, and in the interim, close to 200,000 black men had enlisted in the fight. So, formalities aside, wasn’t it all over, literally, but the shouting?

It would be easy to think so in our world of immediate communication, but as Granger and the 1,800 bluecoats under him soon found out, news traveled slowly in Texas. Whatever Gen. Robert E. Lee had surrendered in Virginia, the Army of the Trans-Mississippi had held out until late May, and even with its formal surrender on June 2, a number of ex-rebels in the region took to bushwhacking and plunder.

2. “The Black American Holiday Everyone Should Celebrate but Doesn’t” (Jamelle Bouie, Slate, June 2015)

Bouie is one of many who argues for Juneteenth to be a federal holiday, pointing out that “far more than our Independence Day, it belongs to all Americans.”

Insofar that modern Americans celebrate the past, it’s to honor the sacrifices of the Greatest Generation or to celebrate the vision of the Founders. Both periods are worthy of the attention. But I think we owe more to emancipation and the Civil War. If we inaugurated freedom with our nation’s founding and defended it with World War II, we actualized it with the Civil War. Indeed, our struggle against slave power marks the real beginning of our commitment to liberty and equality, in word, if not always in deed.

3. “City to Acknowledge It Operated a Slave Market for More Than 50 Years” (Jim O’Grady, WNYC, April 2015)

Jim O’Grady’s story on New York City’s plan to own up to the northern city’s participation in slavery notes that the unveiling of a marker to memorialize that history would be pegged to Juneteenth.

“It’s not a feel-good story,” said Thomas J. Davis, a professor at Arizona State University who writes about slavery in the north. “It’s not a story that people have wanted to hear.” Davis and other historians say Americans in the north tend to think of slavery as a fever that gripped the south — a fever cured by the Civil War.

But New York and other northern cities accrued vast wealth from slave labor and profited for centuries from dealings in the slave trade. Africans who passed through the Wall Street slave market contributed to the prosperity of some very famous companies, some of which are still around: Aetna, New York Life and JPMorgan Chase, to name a few.

4. “Juneteenth Should Be a Federal Holiday” (Zak Cheney Rice, Mic, June 2017)

Like Bouie, Rice argues that Juneteenth deserves to be a holiday, in part to combat the attempts at “erasure” by those who claim the Civil War was about states’ rights, not slavery.

In Texas — the state where Juneteenth originated — a new spate of social studies textbooks de-emphasizes the role slavery played in launching the Civil War.

“[It’s] a side issue to the Civil War,” Pat Hardy, a Republican school board member said when the board adopted this new statewide standard in 2010, according to the Washington Post. “There would be those who would say the reason for the Civil War was over slavery. No. It was over states’ rights.”

5. “Juneteenth, Democracy and Jefferson Beauregard Sessions” (Dawn Godbolt, Garnet News, June 2017)

Dawn Godbolt links the importance of Juneteenth to our current Attorney General’s efforts to write policy “in a manner that attempts to steal the futures of African Americans — begetting the question of what democracy means for blacks.”

Previous attorney generals, including Eric Holder and Sally Yates, ordered prosecutors to avoid charges that exacerbated the mass prison industrial complex and to cease using private prisons to house federal prisoners. These changes were implemented in response to a better understanding of how incarceration affects the life chances of offenders, their families, and their communities, and a shift in social attitudes towards marijuana. Session’s policy initiative signals to Americans that race-based policies intended to restrict the freedom of blacks to be a priority for the attorney general’s agenda.

There is an insidious, racially motived ideological belief, that black men in America need to be contained.

6. “Though the Heavens Fall, Part 1” (John Jeremiah Sullivan & Joel Finsel, Oxford American, February 2015)

In this lengthy feature, two writers look at “Texas, old newspapers, race music, and two black lives that shaped the history of civil rights,” particularly at C.N. Love, a black albino who worked as “the Houston advertising agent for several African-American newspapers.”

As a schoolboy in Houston, Love became known as a good public speaker, a deliverer of “orations.” He loved to read, even if holding the book against his face, and he paid attention to preachers’ tricks. His earliest nickname, apart from C.N., was Judge or “the Honorable.” Despite or perhaps helped in part by his unusual appearance, he grew into an object of community pride. In the 1880s he emerged as a figure in the city’s black cultural life, a fixture on the committees that planned the yearly “Juneteenth” or Emancipation Day celebrations, a perennial decider of beauty contests.

7. “National Observance of Juneteenth is Still A Struggle” (Jacqueline J. Holness, Urban Faith, June 2016)

Holness looks both at Obama’s pre-presidency support of making Juneteenth a national holiday and arguments against doing so, such as:

“[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.

8. “Juneteenth Is For Everyone” (Kenneth C. Davis, The New York Times, June 2015)

Davis looks at how celebrations of Juneteenth fell and rose in popularity, ultimately arguing, as Bouie did, that it is “a shared point of pride in the symbolic end of centuries of racial slavery.”

Spurred by a revival of pride in African-American traditions long denied or suppressed, Juneteenth has gained official recognition — although not necessarily full legal holiday status — in a number of states, starting, appropriately, with Texas, which made Juneteenth a paid holiday for state employees in 1980.

Still, 150 years after its birth, Juneteenth remains largely unacknowledged on America’s national calendar. Many Americans are unaware of its existence, or its roots. Sadly, that ignorance of Juneteenth reflects a deeper issue: the continued existence of two histories, black and white, separate and unequal.

9. “Juneteenth and Barbecue” (Daniel Vaughn, Texas Monthly, June 2015)

On the 150th anniversary of Juneteenth, Vaughn pays tribute to “the menu of Emancipation Day.”

Barbecue wasn’t the only item on the menu. The middle of June being the beginning of watermelon season in Texas, it also found a spot at the table. The Galveston Daily News reported on celebrations across the state in 1883 including one in San Antonio where “twenty-three wagons loaded with watermelons…were destroyed with marvelous rapidity.” By 1933, the menu had been cemented per the Dallas Morning News. “Watermelon, barbecue and red lemonade will be consumed in quantity.