Sunday, June 15, 2003
The day was Sept. 22, 1862. Tension had built between two opposing forces—the North and the South. The impending decision: whether bringing the institution of slavery to an end would change the tone of the Civil War and give the Union the added power it needed to defeat the Confederates. It was at this point that President Abraham Lincoln decided there was no choice but emancipation. Following the victory for the Union at Antietam, President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation that stated, "That on the 1st day of January, A.D. 1863, all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States and shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free."
Lincoln's decision came with a bit of reluctance, however. Our "Honest Abe" had a history of open criticism of, as well as opposition toward emancipation. On several occasions, Lincoln supported Union commanders when they returned runaway slaves, and the president refused to officially acknowledge and pay black soldiers. Nonetheless, these ambivalent feelings brought about a resolution that forever changed the history of America.
But freedom did not come quickly. Not until the evening of June 19, 1865, nearly two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued, did many slaves in the South actually experience freedom. This is about how long it took before enough Union soldiers were stationed to enforce this executive order. A few stories linger today of how the emancipating troops waited for the plantation owners to complete their last cotton harvest before issuing the proclamation. Whatever the case, nothing could compare to the enchanting smell of freedom that filled the air on this night, literally, as barbecue pits were fired up, and festivals of rejoicing, singing and dancing throughout the South commemorated the moment. As many of the freedmen and women migrated across the country, the tradition and celebration of June 19th was carried along for the journey.
On Jan. 1, 1980, the celebration of June 19th, now titled Juneteenth Day, was made an official state holiday in Texas through the efforts of Al Edwards, an African-American state legislator. This was the first emancipation celebration to receive official recognition. Today, the spirit of Juneteenth has spread nationwide, as many organizations have joined together to keep the tradition alive by promoting knowledge and appreciation for African-American history.
So what exactly would one expect to see at a Juneteenth celebration? Just about all the community can offer. I have attended Juneteenth Day on many occasions at home in Milwaukee, which happens to hold one of the two largest Juneteenth celebrations in America (the other is in Minneapolis). It has always been a day that created a feeling of nostalgia to last throughout the rest of the summer. Depending on the location, you can expect to see barbecue, music, games, fishing and even rodeos for entertainment. Of course, there must always be a vision and focus behind the festivities. Religious and political leaders usually speak on issues concerning community improvement and education. Prayer has also always played a vital role in this celebration.
"Health, Education, Empowerment, and Development for the Community" is the theme for this year's Juneteenth Day Celebration in Jackson. On Saturday, June 21, come out to Battlefield Park from 12 noon to 6 p.m. and take part in this celebration of American history. Some of the events planned include guest speaker NAACP State President Eugene Bryant, a job fair, step teams, gospel, rap and poetry performances. Feel free to bring out those grills we have not touched since Memorial Day, and the kids can participate in games such as Space Walk. Area schools will be recruiting, vendors will be vending, dancers dancing, singers singing, everything to give you a reason to get off your butt and come on out to the park.
Last year similar Juneteenth attempts were made, but festivities didn't jump off as intended. This year offers the opportunity to make up for last year, as well as set in motion a new legacy of Juneteenth Day in Jackson.
It took two and a half years before the word was spread that slavery had been abolished. Let us not follow in the same tradition of delay.