“Freedom”: Remembering the First Juneteenth

by Rosa Colquitt, PhD, Democratic Party of Oregon Vice Chair, DPO Black Caucus Chair

On June 17, 2021, President Joe Biden said these words on the occasion of signing legislation into law establishing June 19th as Juneteenth National Independence Day:

 “I have to say to you, I’ve only been president for several months, but I think this will go down, for me, as one of the greatest honors I will have as president. . . I regret that my grandchildren aren’t here, because this is a really, really, really important moment in our history. By making Juneteenth a federal holiday, all Americans can feel the power of this day and learn from our history — and celebrate progress and grapple with the distance we’ve come and the distance we have to travel.”   

More than a century and a half have passed between the time Juneteenth became an official federal holiday in 2021 and the historic day on June 19, 1865, when Union General Granger rode into Galveston, Texas to inform Black men, women and children, that by way of General Order Number 3, “all slaves are free.”

Freedom Juneteenth

Significantly late with the news of freedom, two-and-a-half years after the Emancipation Proclamation ended slavery in the Confederacy, General Granger probably had no idea that newly freed Black Americans, despite the delay, fear, and continuing violence, would remarkably transform June 19th into their own annual rite: “Juneteenth.” “June” plus “nineteenth” blends the month and day the delayed, but welcome, news of freedom came to Texas.

Today, Juneteenth is one of the most important annual celebrations of emancipation in American history, yet many students have never been taught about this event in school. With Juneteenth now recognized as a national holiday, there is reason to be hopeful that renewed interest and education are indeed possible.

As Chair of the DPO Black Caucus and an active community leader, many people have asked me two questions — What is Juneteenth and what can I do to promote a fuller understanding of this holiday? Not surprisingly, I’m ready to answer.

Juneteenth is a festive time of bringing families and communities together to celebrate with stories, song, dance, music, parades, and lots and lots of uniquely prepared foods, all in remembrance of Freedom Day on June 19, 1865. But Juneteenth is also a unique time of reflection and education.

One of the most important ways we can promote Juneteenth is by sharing the celebration with the youth in our lives. They are the leaders and ambassadors of America’s future. It is our responsibility to educate them on a true and complete American history – a key aspect of that history being the spirit and resilience of Black people in America, and especially the joy of freedom on the first Juneteenth celebration. As I’ve written in earlier essays, “my mind can scarcely imagine the depths of the emotions and the fear of the unknown for the newly freed Black men, women, and children of Texas.”

By sharing Juneteenth with young people, by truthfully discussing a painful American past, we can begin to approach some of the current problems of systemic racism in our communities, organizations, and political structures. When we acknowledge the good news of General Granger’s General Order Number 3, we must also teach our youth that while Black people were no longer enslaved, under the new Jim Crow laws, they still had to work to support plantation owners. They were not permitted to reap the benefits of land ownership themselves. Indeed, this historical fact has had long-lasting generational impacts, still influencing today’s widening racial wealth gap. This knowledge can be very important to future generations of students and young leaders tasked with building equitable solutions and accountability within our organizations, and across all spectrums of our society.

By exposing the historical backdrop and truths of Juneteenth with younger generations, we empower them to understand American history on their own terms. Juneteenth is also a tremendous opportunity for Americans of all ages, within the beauty of their own unique ethnic and cultural experiences, to unite under the common goal of learning from our past to improve the lives of all future generations.

Remembering the first Juneteenth, I appreciate that the good news of freedom was about so much more than just celebrating one day or a single historical event. Rather, it is about a celebration of future freedoms, hope, family, community, culture, joy, profound resilience, and the possibility of magnificent things to come. Happy Juneteenth Everybody! 

The Democratic Party of Oregon Black Caucus invites you to join us in celebration at Juneteenth Oregon 2022. With great joy, we also announce a wide range of spectacular Juneteenth opportunities across Oregon by an energized Democratic Party County leadership. You can see a listing of events by clicking here.