Juneteenth was named a federal holiday on June 17, 2021. This holiday marks the emancipation of enslaved people in 1865, at the conclusion of the Civil War. Although the Emancipation Proclamation had declared enslaved people in Confederate states free two years earlier, southern states had no interest in respecting it. It took a brutal war to achieve full emancipation – and it required military protection of those rights afterward. To learn more about this historic day, we spoke with Dr. Corinne Mason, Associate Professor and Chair of the Humanities department here at Fontbonne. Corrine holds a Ph.D. in American studies and teaches courses in US history and culture studies.
In talking to Corinne, we learned about the specifics of this holiday, and provided us with helpful resources to learn more! Check out Dr. Mason’s responses below:
How would you describe the history of Juneteenth to those that are unfamiliar?
Juneteenth marks the anniversary of the date that Major Gen. Gordon Granger announced in Galveston, TX General Order No. 3, which announced “absolute equality” between the enslaved and enslavers after the conclusion of the Civil War. This is the common wisdom, anyway — some question whether he really read this aloud. News of emancipation had been slow to reach Texas because of its geographic distance but also because Texan enslavers were attempting to suppress this news so that they might carry on slavery illegally in that region. Granger’s troops arrived to enforce and protect this equality.
What is the significance of Juneteenth being named a federal holiday?
I think it reflects the present moment in some ways more than it does the past. It is an attempt in the present to prioritize values of equality and inclusion that we have never fully achieved but that have come to the forefront in recent years.
For many black communities, this is not a new holiday. It is only new in the sense that it is being recognized at the federal level. I think there is something to be said for there being a holiday around these values that is not tied to the celebration of a single individual like MLK but to the collective efforts of many, especially the formerly enslaved, to win–and then enforce–freedom for all (and save the Union while they were at it!).
On the other hand, some have criticized the way that corporations began using Juneteenth as a holiday to signal their commitments to diversity and inclusion, which was part of how it moved toward becoming a federal holiday. Folks aren’t necessarily upset that they recognize the holiday, but rather the idea that it might be easier to make a big deal out of giving employees this day off and not doing enough to change the actual corporate cultures that aren’t as inclusive or equitable as they should be. The question is whether the holiday designation is just symbolic or representative of deeper change.
Where can people go to become more educated on Juneteenth?
I highly recommend the book On Juneteenth by Annette Gordon-Reed. It’s short, personal, and readable, so not overwhelming at all. It’s great for anyone who wants to reflect more deeply on the holiday and is written by one of the leading US historians, Annette Gordon-Reed.
You can also read more about it in Clint Smith’s book How the Word is Passed, another very readable and fascinating book about how we remember slavery in the US.
In learning more about the history of the Juneteenth we wanted to speak to members of the Fontbonne Community to understand what this day means to them:
MiKaela “Mikki” Edgar, Sophomore studying Business Administrations, ODK Publicist, and Multicultural Affairs Volunteer.
Juneteenth is a time of celebration that brings African- Americans together to celebrate the freedom that was given to us in 1863 even though not fully recognized till June 19, 1865. Juneteenth is important to me because it recognizes the struggles that came with obtaining freedom in America for African – Americans. We have worked hard and continue to strive for freedom in this country. It wasn’t until 2021 that Juneteenth was recognized as a national holiday. While I am thankful and amazed at how far we have come, we still have a long way to go, true equality for all is what we would like to obtain. So, on Juneteenth, I not only celebrate but reflect on the struggles that my people have endured to become free.
Regina Wade Johnson, MAS., ASD, Director Kinkel Center, Academic Support and Accommodations Coordinator, and Black Faculty and Staff Association Member
Juneteenth is the Independence Day for black people. It is our Day of Freedom! A day to pay homage to our ancestors who lost their lives, so we can be free. A colorful day of celebration for black people and the end of slavery.