Should We Celebrate Juneteenth?
"Juneteenth Picnic" oil, 30 in x 24 in
Arthello Beck, Jr.
I had lunch with Rev. Peter Johnson yesterday. He walked into CT's Real Deal Barbeque in South Dallas, shook my hand, and smiled.
"How was your holiday?" he asked me.
"Great!" I said. It was. I told him I spoke to my father for about 15 or 20 minutes, and I had even gotten a few texts and congratulations for being the doting godfather of a 2-year-old boy. Johnson froze, smile still plastered on his face, then nodded.
"That's good, son," he said, before changing the subject. That's when I realized he wasn't talking about Father's Day. He was talking about Juneteenth.
For those who don't know, Juneteenth celebrates June 19, 1865, the day Union General Gordon Granger announced in Galveston that Texan slaves were free. He also had 2,000 troops with him, just to make sure everything went smoothly.
President Lincoln gave the Emancipation Proclamation, of course, on September 22, 1862, which marks the date most slaves in America were freed. Texas, an outlier from its first breath, and still barely a state at that point, took almost three years to free its slaves, and only after Granger's threat of forceful coercion.
Juneteenth is technically a state holiday, observed in all but eight states today. And though celebrations do take place all over the country (there was a Juneteenth Festival in New York City's Harlem neighborhood this weekend), it's widely ignored. I'm a black kid born in D.C., and come from a family of fighters -- under the United States flag abroad in the Vietnam or World Wars, or under the banner of the Black Panthers at home. My family fought and bled for freedom and equality, and though "post-racial America" is a myth, I think in some places, at least, there's some semblance of equality. My best friend is white, my godson is Colombian and the first girl I ever loved is from the Philippines. Before I moved to Texas, I'd never even heard of Juneteenth. When I found out what it was, I was shocked. When I found out people celebrated it, I almost laughed.
I called a few people today about the holiday, which Dallas blacks celebrated Saturday in Fair Park at a star-studded cultural festival. "Up North, a lot have never heard of it. But Juneteenth was our Fourth of July," the activist Reverend Ronald Wright told me. "Truth be told, it should have been done years before."
I also spoke to Paul Quinn College's president, Michael Sorrell, a native Chicagoan. He's lived in Dallas for close to 20 years now. He doesn't celebrate it.
"It doesn't even make me mad anymore," he said. "It's just sad."
Juneteenth is among the darkest marks in Texas' and America's history, and it shows the full extent of arrogance, racial hatred and monetary greed. It also poetically captures the more recent history between blacks and whites in East Texas. The Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964, though blacks were still fighting for those same civil rights in Texas more than 20 years after the fact. And today, just minutes south of NorthPark Center is South Dallas' food desert, where many of Dallas' minorities have to travel five, six, seven miles or more to buy the closest fresh head of lettuce.
Observe Juneteenth? Sure, so long as you know the bloody history that comes with it. Celebrate it? I'm not so sure.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Observer's biggest stories.