Celebrating freedom with Juneteenth

A chance to heal from our nation's past
Celebrating freedom with Juneteenth Day
Thomas Yonash
Fabu Phillis Carter

Imagine being enslaved almost two and a half years longer than others in the United States, and then the elation when you learn you are finally free. Juneteenth Day was created to celebrate African American liberation from slavery in the Southwest on June 19, 1865. With armed troops, Union Major Gen. Gordon Granger went to Galveston, Texas, to enforce freedom for all people remaining enslaved by declaring: “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 rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves.”

Texas, by continuing slavery after the end of the Civil War, enslaved African Americans longer than any other state, years after President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863.

When their freedom was enforced, African Americans celebrated jubilantly, establishing Juneteenth as their first day of true freedom and America’s second Independence Day. Juneteenth has been celebrated in Madison for decades as a family-friendly event with Afro-centric themes, food and programs.

Juneteenth Day, popularized over the years as simply “Juneteenth,” is now a state holiday or special day of observance, recognized by 45 states, including Wisconsin. The five states not recognizing it are Hawaii, Montana, New Hampshire, North Dakota and South Dakota. Despite these five states, America now has two Independence Days: the 4th of July and the 19th of June, according to the U.S. Senate, which unanimously passed Senate Resolution 474 on June 12, 2014. It marked a historic legislative milestone in acknowledging the country’s legacy of enslavement and eventual freedom for African Americans. The Madison Juneteenth Committee contributed signed petitions and worked for the passage of S.R. 474 as well.

Since 2014, only one step has remained to establish Juneteenth Day as a national day of observance and placed on calendars throughout the nation, and that is the leadership and support of the U.S. president to sign an executive order and establish the holiday. Former President Barack Obama never issued that order, although Michelle Obama, in her speech at the 2016 Democratic National Convention, acknowledged, “I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves.”

Madison Juneteenth founder and organizer Annie Weatherby-Flowers sees Juneteenth as a visible expression of African Americans, of all ages and backgrounds, coming together in unity to celebrate their history, culture, foods and racial uniqueness. She expressed disappointment that Juneteenth was not celebrated at the White House before Obama left, and said that the 45 states recognizing Juneteenth included Republican governors.

“The National Juneteenth Committee, under Dr. Ron Myers, a former Madisonian–throughout the tenure of many U.S. presidents–urged the White House to take a leadership role in this celebration of freedom,” she said. “He also requested that Obama honor the enslaved Americans that built the White House, as mentioned by his wife, by hosting a Juneteenth celebration at the White House in 2016.” Both Meyers and Weatherby-Flowers view Juneteenth as a way to bring reconciliation and healing from the legacy of enslavement in our nation.

There is also 90-year-old Opal Lee, who has grown up with Juneteenth since she was a child in Texas and has spent most of her 90 years making sure June 19th doesn’t go unnoticed. She convinced the Texas Legislature to create a Texas license plate that says “Celebrate Freedom.” Mrs. Lee (I feel it’s important to use the courtesy title before her last name because of her elder status) has been walking in cities that have Juneteenth celebrations.

On Oct. 13, 2016, it was Madison’s turn to host Mrs. Lee as she walked from Olin Park along John Nolen Drive to the isthmus. She met and received support from Weatherby-Flowers, Mayor Paul Soglin, Sen. Lena Taylor (D-Milwaukee) and others. While here, Mrs. Lee said, “I feel Juneteenth is a unifier. Slaves didn’t free themselves.” When we examine history, we see that blacks, abolitionists, Quakers and Native Americans (among others) worked tirelessly to free slaves. Mrs. Lee says that folks joining together helped African Americans win freedom. Weatherby-Flowers adds that many African Americans fought to end slavery–one of the reasons we celebrate Juneteenth–yet their names are unknown.

Mrs. Lee walked across the country to ask Obama to make Juneteenth a national holiday. They never met to talk, so now she looks to President Donald Trump to make it a national holiday. She is collecting signatures on a petition for this purpose but needs at least 100,000 signatures to present to Congress. Mrs. Lee asks people to go online, give their signature and confirm it. She cautions, “If you don’t confirm your signature, we don’t get it counted.” Her website is opalswalk2dc.com. Happy Juneteenth!

Fabu Phillis Carter is a literary artist, educator and columnist who served as Madison Poet Laureate from 2008 to 2012.