As COVID-19 continues to batter the city and social distancing remains the order of the day, New Yorkers have scrambled to adapt their cherished summertime celebrations to a virtual format. This year, New York City’s official Juneteenth celebration will be virtual. This is a significant change for a holiday typically observed through large public gatherings for parades, pageants, performances, political speeches, and prayers. Given our current national focus on the history of racial injustice, the Center for Women’s History has been eager to reflect on the origins of the holiday, Black women’s particular role in establishing its celebration, and how this holiday has been seen as an alternative to Independence Day.
On Juneteenth, (short for “June Nineteenth), Black Americans come together to commemorate the Emancipation Proclamation and the end of slavery. President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in September 1862, freeing all enslaved persons held within the rebelling the following January (enslaved men and women in Union states would have to wait until the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865 to taste freedom). Black Americans in the Southeastern states immediately celebrated their freedom. But in Texas, a remote slave state where minimal fighting took place, the news of emancipation did not reach enslaved men and women until nearly two and a half years later: on June 19, 1865.
Juneteenth celebrations began in the late 19th century as localized community gatherings among Black Texans, who held barbecues, organized baseball games, and staged historical reenactments. As Jim Crow laws and customs robbed Black Americans of their citizenship rights, economic autonomy, and very often their lives, this holiday commemorating the end of slavery took on enormous political significance. Between 1940 and 1970, millions of Black Americans departed Texas for the Northeast, Midwest, and West Coast, and they carried their Juneteenth traditions to their new homes. The overlapping civil rights and Black Power movements of the 1960s and 1970s placed heavy emphasis on injecting African cultural imagery and Black history into public consciousness, leading to even wider observance of the holiday.
Both in the past and the present, Black women have been central to the celebration of Juneteenth and the commemoration of emancipation. When rumor and news of the proclamation trickled onto plantations, many enslaved women walked out of bondage in their mistresses’ dresses and finery, discarding visible markers of slavery to “put on the cloak of freedom,” items they believed were rightfully theirs after years of unpaid labor. As historian Stephanie Camp notes, these women’s sartorial expression of emancipation astonished white slaveholding women; one white woman in particular found her closet emptied of “least one hundred dollars [worth] of my clothing.” As a matter of necessity, enslaved women lifted their owners’ underclothing and everyday dresses. But, they also helped themselves to “fine and pretty things” such as “laces,” “ribbons and trinkets.” One woman, Peggy, tied the “pink ribbons” and “bows” into the hair of her children as a display of “pride in their freedom.”
The dignity of freedom exuded from emancipated women who strode into Union camps after the proclamation. Much to the vexation of Union soldiers, these women “dressed up in their mistresses’ clothes” gaily danced and strutted about the grounds. Through their dress and exuberant joy, Black women “politicized their bodies” and claimed freedom as an act of self-expression. These struts and personal parades of dignity were indeed precursors to later, more formalized emancipation celebrations.
In the late 19th century, Black women extended these celebrations of freedom to organizing Juneteenth festivities (as well as the closely related holidays like Emancipation Day and Day of Jubilee). According to historian Paul Ortiz, through pageants and parades where participants dressed in the garb of slaves and overseers, Black women in Ocala, FL, acted as public historians conveying to the younger generation the horrors and humiliations of slavery and the joys of freedom. Memory work was not limited to these events: Black women in Jacksonville honored the sacrifice of the forgotten Black soldiers who served in the Union army by decorating their graves. In speeches delivered before a mixed-gender audience, Black women orators celebrated the progress of the race since emancipation despite the obstacles of Jim Crow. In 1891, “Several hundred of the leading colored citizens of Ocala” gathered to hear Miss M. J. Brydie deliver a speech on “Lincoln” while Mrs. F. L. Williams spoke on “Freedom.” At the 1896 event, Hattie F. Bryant proclaimed that “the history of the race . . . attested of wonderful success under conditions so unfavorable since emancipation days.” Into the 20th and 21st centuries, the labor of Black women as food preparers for cookouts, costume designers and dressmakers for parades, and community organizers and planners have remained central to Juneteenth celebrations.
Juneteenth falls between two major patriotic summer holidays: Americans honor the sacrifice of Armed Forces members who died in the line of duty on Memorial Day in late May and celebrate the nation’s independence from the British Empire on July 4th. Historically, Black Americans have had a complicated relationship with Independence Day and the incomplete freedom the holiday represents. In a July 1852 speech titled “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?,” preeminent abolitionist Frederick Douglass railed against the hypocrisy of white Americans celebrating their freedom from tyranny while continuing to hold millions of blacks in bondage. He declared, “I am not included within the pale of glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us.” Lamenting this unfulfilled promise and the ongoing struggle for full citizenship and civil rights, Black Americans instead choose to show allegiance to their families, donning bold gold or purple colors for family reunions rather than red, white, and blue.
Moreover, the contemporary Black Lives Matter movement and current protests against police brutality continue to remind Americans of the incomplete work of emancipation. To be sure, the ambivalence with which many Black Americans view Independence Day, and its companion symbol of freedom, the American Flag, is not new. Thus, Juneteenth offers an alternative. As a commemoration of emancipation, Juneteenth allows Black Americans to joyfully express patriotism in a way that keeps critiques of ongoing racial inequality intact.
Written by Pamela Walker, Andrew W. Mellon Predoctoral Fellow in Women’s History and Public History, Center for Women’s History, and Caitlin Wiesner, Andrew W. Mellon Predoctoral Fellow in Women’s History and Public History, Center for Women’s History