The story of freedom for Black people in America unfolds and winds like the roots of a tree that won’t stop growing. The deeper the roots push into the earth, the more the tree’s limbs sprawl and reach for light.
Since the death of George Floyd on May 25, 2020, calls for racial justice have intensified. In the wake of what some call America’s “racial reckoning,” Black Americans’ storied legacy and history have experienced a quiet renaissance. Stories like that of Juneteenth’s origins are no longer buried in the minds and isolated traditions of Black people in this country. Like that perennial tree, the stories’ roots have taken hold and their limbs are finally seeing the light of day.
But there is a delicacy to this moment in time. As we prepare to celebrate Juneteenth for the second time as a country, what tone are we setting? What traditions are taking root? And do the tone and traditions honor the rich complexity of Black Americans’ historical and continued journey to freedom?
A quick scroll through my Instagram leaves me apprehensive. America has been quick to capitalize off of the new holiday with myriad Juneteenth sales and promotions, many of which dominate my social feeds, alongside influencers criticizing America’s hyper tendency to monetize the sacred.
I find myself reaching for stories of Black freedom that have been buried in hopes that they can inform America on how to commemorate – not just celebrate – a day like Juneteenth, lest we fail to learn from our past.
One such story…
During the spring of 1865, two years after President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, formerly enslaved people in Charleston, South Carolina, held a series of memorials and rituals to honor unnamed fallen Union soldiers, and boldly celebrate the struggle against slavery.
One event in particular, though largely erased from history, is now credited for shaping the tone and traditions of present-day Memorial Day commemorations.
A parade of 10,000 was staged at a former outdoor prison for captured Union soldiers. According to records from a Harvard archive unearthed by researcher David Blight, a history professor at Yale University:
“The parade was led by 3,000 Black school children carrying bundles of roses, singing the Union marching song ‘John Brown’s Body.’ Several hundred Black women followed with baskets of flowers, wreaths, and crosses. Then came Black men marching in cadence, followed by contingents of Union infantrymen. Within the cemetery enclosure, a Black children’s choir sang ‘We’ll Rally Around the Flag,’ the ‘Star-Spangled Banner’ and spirituals before a series of Black ministers read from the Bible.’
Following the parade, families picnicked, listened to speeches, and watched soldiers drill, things we still do today on the Federal holiday.
These early memorials were, by design, empathetic to the sacrifices that led to freedom. Celebration was not without grieving for lives lost, mourning all those who had not lived to experience life out of bondage. Events were often held at cemeteries and on grounds where much blood had been spilled in the fight to emancipate the enslaved, intuiting a tone of reflection and remembrance that is instilled in our Memorial Day traditions today.
Weeks after the Charleston parade, on June 19, 1865, enslaved people in Galveston, Texas, finally received word from Union army troops that freedom had come at last. Two years. It took over two years for the Emancipation Proclamation to make its way from northeast America to its southernmost states. Each time it was formally read aloud in a new town or state, formerly enslaved people immediately began to celebrate with prayer, the singing of spirituals, and dance. They donned new clothes as a way of representing their newfound freedom. They feasted.
Juneteenth was not an isolated celebration. It was not isolated from the formerly enslaved people’s pain and bondage that immediately preceded the announcement of freedom. The immensity of the cry for joy on June 19, 1865 in Galveston was proportionate to the 200+ years of suffering, slavery, and oppression that preceded the jubilation.
As individuals and companies across America prepare for Juneteenth, I challenge us not just to celebrate this day of freedom but to commemorate it.
The more we open ourselves to the bone-shaking stories of the fight for Black freedom, the more America understands herself.
Here’s to a commemorative Juneteenth. May our tone and traditions on this day do right by those who came before us.