The origin of Juneteenth - plus a peer-reviewed quick reference guide to #celebrationasresistance
The pursuit of a federal holiday for Juneteenth was finally realized last year, its first federal observance in 2021, two days after being signed into law by President Joe Biden. This time, it wasn’t a general on a horse; it was an 89-year-old Black woman on foot. Without the 40 years of persistent efforts by Texas native Ms. Opal Lee — who had her family home burned to the ground by white supremacists when she was 12 years old — Juneteenth would still be seeking to become the most recent federally declared holiday since 1983. That was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
In 2016, Ms. Lee, walked from her home in Fort Worth to Washington, D.C. in an effort to bring awareness to her campaign to make Juneteenth a national holiday. In February, 34 members of the United States Congress submitted a letter to the Norwegian Nobel Committee to nominate Lee for the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize. Just last month, Ms. Lee was recognized as “Person of the Year” by Fort Worth Magazine.
Juneteenth is also known as America’s true Independence Day, because the passage of the Declaration of Independence on July 4th, 1776 didn’t include Black Americans in the “all men are created equal” part. And we were certainly not party to the “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” part … at least not until June 19th, 1855.
So where does that leave you today, roughly 365 days into a universe where Juneteenth is officially a paid federal holiday? The proud beneficiary of these hard won labor movement gains that leveled the playing field (read: plantation) for workers of all shades, shapes, sizes, sexes, Stars and Stripes? Have no fear, a year ago I collaborated with some BIPOC coworkers of yours to develop a Quick Reference Guide to Juneteenth for employers and employees alike. Feel free to use any or all items on this list for your 2022 Juneteenth Observances … or any of the other 364 days a year when you are feeling a bit questionable (or a bit too comfortable) with the modern day phenomena of Blacks in the workplace.
Special thanks to Fawn Douglass, Jeremy Jasper, Janell Langford & Justin Stucey for sharing their memories, experiences and Quick Reference Guide pointers. Hear them in their own words at the Melan+aid Podcast.
Author Bio: Hakim Bellamy served as Albuquerque’s Inaugural Poet Laureate from 2012 - 2014. Besides poems, he has written and continues to write other things like songs, play scripts, musicals, radio news scripts, short stories, flash fiction, music reviews, book reviews, newspaper articles and blogs, like this! Meet Hakim at www.beyondpoetryink.com.
I like to think of the Emancipation Proclamation as the Interoffice Memo we never got. At over 700 words it was #TLDNR.
Two Januarys later, the 13th Amendment (the law that made slavery illegal in the United States) crossed the last hurdle in Congress. And even for a country 89 years old at the time… it literally served to document the idiom “Freedom isn’t free.” Apparently, neither was labor nor luck.
It was not until June 19th, 1865, two and a half years after Lincoln’s emancipation and six months before ratification of the 13th … that an Army Colonel, in Texas, had to remind certain “employers” that slaveholding was now somewhat of an illegal enterprise. That work of any color and kind now requires compensation. That human resource would now take on a kindler, gentler connotation.
Gordon Granger, who died a Major General in Santa Fe, New Mexico, made his proclamation in 96 words. I like to think of it as one of those company-wide emails, but on the shorter end … maybe even a longerish tweet. General Order No. 3.
Quite frankly, laws are like Constitutions, hardly worth the parchment they are written on unless they are actually enforced and egalitarian. Like any workplace policy rollout there’s an acclimation period, for those who’ll inevitably say they missed the “memo.” Time for those who’ll say they hadn’t seen, read or heard of the new standard operating procedures. Then, comes the compliance period, that world hereafter when the time to get caught up on all the changes has expired. That’s when the military shows up armed and on horseback at your establishment because two-and-a-half years is more than enough time to evolve said “company culture.”
The company culture of this country is self-evident in every federal document mentioned thus far. The Emancipation Proclamation directly references work (and war):
And I hereby enjoin upon the people so declared to be free to abstain from all violence, unless in necessary self-defence*; and I recommend to them that, in all cases when allowed, they labor faithfully for reasonable wages.
And I further declare and make known, that such persons of suitable condition, will be received into the armed service of the United States to garrison forts, positions, stations, and other places, and to man vessels of all sorts in said service.
The 13th Amendment makes explicit mention of work (read: involuntary servitude) and prison, while General Order No. 3 reclassified us from slave labor to “hired labor” and even offered suggestions (read: stereotypes) on how we should endeavor to conduct ourselves on our personal time.
“The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.”
Tropes concerning what Black people do during non-work hours persist ‘til this very day, however the one about idleness never made much sense to me. We essentially built the infrastructure and cultivated the wealth of this country for its first 90 years of existence by working 24/7 for what was the equivalent of livestock level room and board. Doesn’t exactly suggest “lazy” to me, however, as one could imagine, the “let out” was last-day-of-school spectacular.
*As spelled in the original document.
The advent of newfound leisure time (ultimately thanks to common sense human rights and labor law) was understandably cause for celebration, the kind that is only made possible by time and money … two things we never had before. In 1866, on the one year anniversary of Granger’s order in Galveston, TX, Black churches began holding what would become annual commemorative gatherings designed to serve as a reminder to future generations of what it might feel like … to get word that your life as you know it, is about to be forever changed. For the better, in fact. 96 words to be exact.
Modeled on the kind of celebration one might expect upon arrival in heaven, the church folk took to calling it Jubilee Day, Emancipation Day, Liberation Day, and Freedom Day. Now, most commonly known as Juneteenth, it is no stretch to imagine that a heavenly homecoming presents a lot like the Black Family Reunions here on earth, ancestors y todo. I like to think of Juneteenth as a contraction of sorts, a combination of the words “June” and “nineteenth,” purposely omitting the apostrophe. Punctuating the fact that apostrophes indicate possession or the omission of numbers and letters (and in some cases, the omission of people).
It is fitting that some communities, like Las Vegas, NV, celebrate the birthday of Tupac Amaru Shakur (June 16th) alongside Juneteenth Celebrations. The turn up at the picnic is akin to at least two of the late rapper's music videos turned wedding receptions with the perpetual line dance being the Humpty Hump. California Love meets I Wonder If Heaven Gotta Ghetto… and by “ghetto” he meant paradise… and by “paradise” we mean a place where we can belong with no judgment, just Juneteenth.
Artwork by Marcus Murray