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Yes, We Say “Happy Juneteenth!” June 19, 2020

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“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”

– “General Order No. 3” read by General Gordon Granger in Galveston, Texas on June Nineteenth, 1865

“Just outside the Oval Office hangs a painting depicting the night of December 31, 1862. In it, African-American men, women, and children crowd around a single pocket watch, waiting for the clock to strike midnight and the Emancipation Proclamation to take effect. As the slaves huddle anxiously in the dimly lit room, we can sense how even two more minutes seems like an eternity to wait for one’s freedom. But the slaves of Galveston, Texas, had to wait more than two years after Lincoln’s decree and two months after Appomattox to receive word that they were free at last.

Today we commemorate the anniversary of that delayed but welcome news.”

– President Barack Obama’s “Statement by the President on the Observance of Juneteenth” (2016)

Today is Juneteenth – and for me, it’s personal.

Over the years, as I’ve taught yoga on June 19th and shared the story of this day’s significance I’ve been surprised at the number of people – including some  Black Americans – who didn’t know about Juneteenth. Coming from Texas, I thought everybody (outside of the State of Alabama) celebrated Juneteenth. Buddy, was I wrong! Here it is 2020 and some folks – even some who, theoretically, have commemorated the date – are just now hearing about it.

By now, as it has been in the news this week and will be all over the news today, you have heard some version of the story. My version involves a proclamation, a painting, a bill, a slew of presidents and legislators, the State of Alabama, and me. Here’s the short version with a little back story:

  • On April 16, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed the District of Columbia Compensated Emancipation Act. The act essentially ended slavery in the capital city (although it did not apply to fugitive slaves who had escaped from Maryland) and set aside over $100,100,000 as compensation for the 3,185 people who were freed.
    • You can read my post on the Emancipation Act here. There’s also a playlist on YouTube and Spotify that works for today.
  • Five months later (on September 22, 1862), President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, with an effective date of January 1, 1863. Remember, the proclamation only freed slaves in the Confederate States of America that were still in rebellion. It did not apply to slaves in the so-called “border states” (Kentucky, Maryland, Delaware, Missouri, and the parts of Virginia that would become West Virginia), which were not in rebellion, or Confederate States that were under Union control (Tennessee, lower Louisiana, and Southeast Virginia).
    • In reference to the painting mentioned in the aforementioned quote, can you imagine being one of those people, watching the clock, anticipating a new year and a brand new start? Can you imagine being free when you and generations of your ancestors had been enslaved? Can you imagine what it would feel like to look forward to living what had previously been a myth or fairy tale?
    • Now, imagine the clock struck midnight – twice – and you were still a slave. How do you feel now?
  • On June 18, 1865, General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas with 2,000 federal troops. The next morning, today, June 19th, he stood on the balcony of Ashton Villa and read General Order #3. “Juneteenth” is a portmanteau of June Nineteenth and this announcement is what people are celebrating today. (Although, some people call it “Emancipation Day.”)
    • Juneteenth is recognized as a state holiday or a special day of observance in 46 states. One of the exceptions is Alabama, which (last time I checked – in other words, as of today) has three official state holidays honoring the Confederacy. Yes, you read and understood that correctly: In the State of Alabama, Robert E. Lee Day (third Monday in January), Confederate Memorial Day (fourth Monday in April), and Jefferson Davis Day (first Monday in June) are paid holidays.

There were no cell phones or internet in 1865, but people had ways of communicating across the country and it is unlikely that no one in Texas, or other Southern states, had heard about the Emancipation Proclamation. Galveston was a major port in 1865. So, even if no rumors had drifted down from the Union, also unlikely, rumors could have easily come from other “international” sources. In all probability, slave owners and their slaves were aware that slavery had been abolished. There are all kinds of theories and conspiracies about what took so long, but that’s another story for another day. Bottom line, part of the reason General Granger came with troops was because he was prepared to meet resistance and needed to enforce all aspects of the general order.

General Granger and the federal troops were not only meant to ensure slaves were freed, but also to ensure the newly freed would keep living in their slave quarters and doing the same work. Sure, they would now (in theory) work for wages; however, the wages would be set by those who had kept them in bondage. To add insult to injury, those same “employers” would also now be “landlords” – and there was nothing keeping the employer/landlord from charging more for rent and board than they would pay in wages (which is exactly what they did).  Furthermore, the federal troops intended to enforce the last part of the order: “[The freedmen] 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.”

Now, I personally have a problem with that last part, because I think – and believe most people would agree – that if you had worked all your life, you deserved a day off. If you and everyone you knew had always been forced to wake up, eat, sleep, even defecate according to someone else’s schedule, it seems like it would be reasonable to have a day or two where you did absolutely nothing – or everything – according to your own whim and desires. But, the general order made it illegal to do nothing and also illegal to seek asylum or refuge at a place people typically went for protection. (Remember, there were no police departments as we have them today.)

People still had impromptu celebrations back in 1865 and in subsequent years. However, segregation and Jim Crow laws made it challenging to have such celebrations. One of the big challenges was that it was illegal for Black people to congregate in public parks. To get around the law, communities of color would pool their money together to purchase land, essentially creating their own parks. If you have ever been to an “Emancipation Park,” there’s a good chance you were standing on hallowed ground: land purchased by former slaves and their descendants specifically to celebrate freedom.

But, there is more to the story. (Since I’m keeping it short-ish and sweet, I’ll leave out the rest of the bad news and get to more of the sweet stuff.)

  • Fast forward ninety-eight years and a day,* to June 20, 1963, when United States Representative Emanuel Celler (D-NY) introduced H. R. 7152 in the House of Representatives. This legislation had originally been proposed by President John F. Kennedy and would become the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It would pass (with amendment) in the Senate on Juneteenth 1964 – exactly ninety-nine years after General Granger read General Order #3 in Galveston. The amendment would be agreed upon shortly thereafter, on another fateful date (July 2nd), and signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson. The law outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. It specifically prohibits “unequal application of voter registration requirements, racial segregation in schools, employment, and public accommodations.” This is not to say that such discrimination ceased to exist. It simply made such discrimination unconstitutional.
    • Additional, amendments, acts, and laws would be proposed and/or approved over the years in order to ensure constitutional rights continue to be upheld.

“There were ‘things’ to be done. Nobody asked me what I meant by ‘things.’ I couldn’t have defined them if I had tried. ‘Things’ had to do with the study of music (this was a family interest), the books I read, and the dreams of travel, and the glimpses of elegance I caught on Fifth Avenue. But ‘things’ had also to do with the way people were hurt and how, because they were hurt, they were angry and quarreled and were jealous of one another.”

 

– from You Never Leave Brooklyn: The Autobiography of Emanuel Celler by Emanuel Celler, U. S. Representative (D-NY)

That’s more or less where I normally end the story. But, this year, there’s a footnote. Because, this week (specifically on June 15th), 155 years after General Granger arrived on Galveston Island and 56 years after the Civil Rights Act became law, the United States Supreme Court upheld a portion of the Civil Rights Act (Title VII) as it relates to sexual orientation and gender identity. In a 6 -3 decision, the highest court in the country affirmed that it is unconstitutional for an employer to fire someone for being gay or transgender. That right there, my friends, is a civil rights victory that I plan to celebrate – even though it doesn’t directly affect me. (Not sure exactly where Representative Celler would stand on this verdict, but as a champion of immigration rights I think he would have loved the DACA decision that came yesterday!)

“Everything you do, every thought you have, every word you say creates a memory that you will hold in your body. It’s imprinted on you and affects you in subtle ways – ways you are not always aware of. With that in mind, be very conscious and selective.”

 

– Phylicia Rashād, née Ayers-Allen (born in Houston, Texas today in 1948)

 

“Memory is the story. Our memories are what make us.”

 

– Tobias Wolff (born in Birmingham, Alabama today in 1945)

So, that’s the story of Juneteenth – and for me, it’s personal.

You may think it’s personal because I’m a Black woman from Texas. But the story of Juneteenth is particularly personal to me because I’m BOI, Born on Island – yes, Galveston Island. I was born mere minutes from the balcony of the Ashton Villa. It’s part of my story.

Today, I’m taking a personal day. It’s going to be as much reflection as celebration, with a little bit of remembering thrown in for good measure. At some points along the way I will give thanks. I may go down the rabbit hole again trying to find out if there’s anything named for General Gordon Granger other than a “fort” that’s really a park. Or maybe I’ll just spend my lunch break fantasizing about Fort Rucker (or Fort Hood) becoming Fort Granger…or even Fort Emanuel Celler (remind me to tell you his fascinating story some day)! You can wish me a Happy Juneteenth, but I probably won’t respond until tomorrow.

*NOTE: An extra day is noteworthy, because, historically, it provides a legal marker for the completion of a year. In European feudal societies, a serf who escaped and was absent from their place of servitude for a year and a day, was legally recognized as free and granted certain rights and privileges – just as former slaves in America were granted certain rights on July 28, 1868, with the ratification of the 14th Amendment. Additionally, in a variety of ancient traditions – from the pagan Celts to the Vodou practicing Haitians – a year and a day is a sacred period, a period of time connected to an honorable duty that transcends lifetimes and generations.

Amber Answers (Juneteenth Questions)

### DON’T LOOK IN THE MIRROR, LOOK INSIDE YOURSELF ###

Comments»

1. Laurie Meyers - June 19, 2020

So grateful for you, and I hope you thoroughly enjoyed your day off! I love you, Myra! You are important to me and so many others.

Love, Laurie

ajoyfulpractice - June 19, 2020

The feeling is mutual.

2. kpmvhm - June 19, 2020

Happy June teenth day, dear Myra! I carry your story and you in my prayers and thoughts this day! Karen

ajoyfulpractice - June 19, 2020

Thank you. I hope your community was able to do something to celebrate Juneteenth today.

3. LENICE GREGORY - June 19, 2020

Enjoy your personal day Myra! XOXO

>

ajoyfulpractice - June 19, 2020

Thank you! Happy Juneteenth!

4. Eileen - June 19, 2020

Fort Rucker. Amen. 😘

ajoyfulpractice - June 19, 2020

Yes, amen to one day saying RIP to names like “Fort Rucker” and “Fort Hood.”

5. Nancy Godfrey - June 19, 2020

Happiest Day of Celebration to you on this Juneteenth! Thanks for your informing and inspirational words!


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