Recent protests surrounding systemic racism and police brutality have brought a groundswell of support to declare today — June 19, known to many as Juneteenth — a national holiday.
Juneteenth has been marked in black communities around the United States for 155 years as the day to celebrate African Americans’ emancipation from slavery.
The celebration started in Texas in 1865 when a Union general read a federal proclamation in Galveston announcing the freeing of all enslaved people, explained Dr. Brian Clardy, an associate professor of history at Murray State University.
“Different people in the South found out that slavery had ended at different times,” Clardy explained. “News was slow getting there and the war had just ended a few months earlier, and so this was cause for great celebration among the African American community in Texas.”
As Clardy explained, different dates have been used to celebrate the freeing of slaves all over the U.S. Some celebrate the issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation (September 22, 1862), some mark the day it went into effect (January 1, 1863) and many areas celebrate when the news made it to the region, as it is locally with the Eighth of August celebration.
“The Eighth of August is a big deal in this region and you don’t hear people really talking about (that date) unless they’re from this area, whereas Juneteenth picked up a whole lot of momentum and has become a very important fixture in African American culture across the country,” Clardy said.
George Ross Jr., a W.C. Young Community Center board member, ties the local Eighth of August celebration to both the freeing of slaves by Andrew Johnson in Tennessee on that date in 1868 and the liberation of slaves during the Haitian Revolution. Ross — who is in support of Juneteenth becoming a national holiday — hopes that people won’t just celebrate the emancipation, but that they’ll remember the history behind it.
“The Emancipation Proclamation didn’t free the slaves in Kentucky, the 13th Amendment did (which was passed in December 1865),” he explained. “I celebrate and support Juneteenth because brothers and sisters were freed at that time, but technically slaves in Kentucky were still in slavery. At the end of the day, no matter when we celebrate our emancipation, it’s just important that we do. We should celebrate our freedom, we do celebrate and acknowledge the ones who fought, struggled and died for our freedom.
“That’s the main focus for me is that we never ever forget why we celebrate and that we do celebrate.”
Betty Dobson, who runs the Hotel Metropolitan in Paducah, has fond memories of going with her uncle, father and brothers to Juneteenth celebrations in Elizabethtown.
“It was a time to get to see family and friends and eat a lot of good food,” she said. “It’s a day that people reflect on their freedom and that their great-grandparents were freed. So it was important to have your friends and family around you.”
Dobson, Clardy and Paducah-McCracken County NAACP President J.W. Cleary join Ross in support of making Juneteenth a national holiday. Cleary thinks the local black community would celebrate both days.
“Juneteenth to me is the same thing as the Emancipation Proclamation and the Eighth of August,” Cleary told the Sun. “It would make me really proud … that we had a holiday celebrating the freeing of slaves.”
Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear signed a proclamation Thursday recognizing Juneteenth National Freedom Day in the commonwealth for what he believes to be the first time in the state’s history. Several companies — including the National Football League, Twitter and Target — have recently recognized Juneteenth as a paid holiday, and Texas Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee is working on a bill to make it a national holiday.
Clardy feels that now is a great time to make this move as a nation.
“The demographics of America are changing and a lot of people want to be able to celebrate their history and their culture,” he said. “To bring it into national focus, to have that day celebrated in the same way that we celebrate the signing of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, the same way that we celebrate Memorial Day, Veterans Day and Flag Day … not to replace any of those holidays but to have that day celebrated on par with these others.”
Many African Americans see a parallel between Juneteenth and Fourth of July.
Dobson has always seen it “as kind of a bittersweet celebration.”
“To African Americans it would be the same thing as the Fourth of July, because African Americans weren’t freed on Independence Day,” Cleary said. “We were still in slavery.”
Clardy celebrates both days with the same vigor, and he hopes the rest of the country will too someday.
“I decorate the house in patriotic colors and grill out. We consider, in this house, Juneteenth and July 4 to be great American celebrations,” the associate professor added. “My hope is the country will celebrate with us all because, really, the end of slavery is an important high-water mark in the history of this country.”