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Two months after Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered, Union General Gordon Granger traveled to Texas to inform the enslaved people of their freedom and the end of the Civil War.
That was June 19, 1865 — more than two years after President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.
To some, Juneteenth is seen as a final step in a long process of emancipation. To others, it is a reminder that though slavery came to end — for many African Americans — freedom never fully took effect.
We discuss the historical significance of Juneteenth, the complicated story of emancipation in America and what it means to celebrate independence in a year of pandemic and protests.
Produced by Julie Depenbrock
- Kelly Navies Oral Historian and Museum Specialist, National Museum of African American History and Culture
- Soyica Colbert Professor of African American Studies and Performing Arts, Georgetown University; @DrSoyica
KOJO NNAMDIYou're tuned in to The Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU 88.5, welcome. Later in the broadcast exploring the culinary traditions of Juneteenth, but first celebrated each year on June 19th is another independence day. Juneteenth commemorates the end of slavery in America. For some it is seen as a final step in a long road to freedom. To others it serves as a reminder that though slavery has ended and it ended 150 years ago for African Americans, emancipation never fully took effect.
KOJO NNAMDIJoining us to discuss the historical significance of Juneteenth, the complicated story of emancipation and what it means to celebrate independence in a year of pandemic and protests is Kelly Navies, Museum Specialist and Oral Historian at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. Kelly Navies, thank you for joining us.
KELLY NAVIESHi, how are you? I'm glad to be here.
NNAMDIKelly, what happened on June 19, 1865?
NAVIESWhen in June 19, 1865 General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas with a force of between 1800 and 2000 Union troops to read general order number three, which essentially reinforced the Emancipation Proclamation that had gone into effect two and a half years earlier stating that the enslaved were now free. But, of course, even though the Emancipation Proclamation had gone into effect two and a half years earlier it really had very little impact on those enslaved people, who were in places that there were no Union troops.
NAVIESSo although thousands of African Americans ran away to slavery and then there were those that were in states that had a strong Union presence, they were able to take advantage of the Emancipation Proclamation. Others were not able to take advantage of this. It wasn't necessarily that the news didn't travel, because the slave owners definitely knew about the Emancipation Proclamation and the enslaved also had their own networks of communication. However, there was nothing they could do about it.
NAVIESSlave owners refused to recognize the authority of the United States government. In fact, there were many slave owners who left other parts of the south to move to Texas, which had very little Union presence throughout the Civil War to continue the institution of slavery without interruption.
NNAMDIHow did enslaved people in the south respond to the Emancipation Proclamation?
NAVIESOf course, those that were able to take advantage of it were happy, right, and they took their freedom. Several thousand ran away to the Union lines and joined the war effort. And several thousand moved to places like Washington D.C. in fact. And if they were in states that had a strong Union presence they were able to exercise their freedom to a certain degree. But, of course, there were many for which it meant little to no change in their life style.
NNAMDIYou mention that in many states the African Americans, who were enslaved could not respond to the Emancipation Proclamation until such time as there were Union troops that were able to enforce it. How did that enforcement take place?
NAVIESWell, as they moved through -- as the Civil War took place and they won certain battles and they would move to different places they would free the enslaved that they came across or the enslaved would run to join them. And they were needed there to actually physically protect the enslaved, who tried to take advantage of their freedom because, of course, they were threatened with life by the white supremacist structures that they lived under.
NNAMDIWhat role did the Freedmen's Bureau play in the wake of emancipation?
NAVIESFreedman's Bureau, although it was created earlier in 1865 didn't arrive in Texas until September. And it was always understaffed and underfunded. However, when it worked it was able to provide basic necessities like food, clothing, places to live and also they performed marriages for newly freed men and women. They helped families to reunite. And that was when they were able to do the things that they were supposed to do. But often they weren't and they weren't supported by a President Johnson, who succeeded Lincoln. So they had a lot of obstacles. And they only lasted until 1872.
NNAMDIWe're talking with Kelly Navies, Museum Specialist and Oral Historian at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. We're discussing the history of Juneteenth, which occurs this Friday June 19. Kelly Navies, when and how did Juneteenth become an annual holiday?
NAVIESWell, it became an annual holiday a year after it took place June 19, 1866. And, of course, there were obstacles to that, but the freed men and women were insistent upon celebrating this day. And they had to find a place to do it. So, for example, in Houston there were black codes that were instituted shortly after the Civil War, which restricted their movement and restricted the gatherings of freed men and women in certain public places.
NAVIESBut Reverend Jack Yates started Antioch Baptist Church and fundraised to raise money for a park, which became known as Emancipation Park. And this park as early as 1872 became a space for Houston's African American community to celebrate Juneteenth. And during the entire era of segregation this was the only public park open to African Americans. And that park is still there today. And there are Emancipation Parks in other cities and towns throughout the country as well.
NAVIESSo despite the obstacles that they were confronted with African American were insistent upon celebrating this day, and they did so. They say the very first Juneteenth in 1866 they barbequed an entire hog. And barbeque is still a central component of Juneteenth celebrations whether you barbeque a hog or you barbeque chicken or you barbeque lamb. But barbeque is a central component and it's also -- there are also many other aspects to the celebration as well.
NNAMDIYeah. That's one of the things that we'll be talking about later in this broadcast. And I know my friends and I started celebrating Juneteenth, I think it was like the middle of the 1980s. But Nancy emails us, "My daughter Shavoney (sp?) was Juneteenth Princess at five years old in 1988. It helped me introduce my daughter to her African American roots." That's Nancy Guies (sp?) who happens to work for WAMU and we all know her daughter Shavoney very well.
NNAMDIWe're waiting on Kelly Navies, a Museum Specialist and Oral Historian at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. We're discussing the history of the holiday now known as Juneteenth, which is celebrated on June 19th, because it was on June 19 in the year of 1865 that slaves in Galveston, Texas were told about emancipation and were told about it in a manner in which it could be enforced, because there were Union Army troops there at the time.
NNAMDIJoining us now is Soyica Colbert, a Professor of African American Studies and Performing Arts at George University. Soyica Colbert, thank you for joining us.
SOYICA COLBERTThank you for having me.
NNAMDIWhy might this year's celebration of Juneteenth be especially resonant for African Americans?
COLBERTWell, I think part of the reason is that we still aren't free and so we know from the history that racial capitalism built the United States and it still informs an organization of our society. And so a resonant example of that is the black and brown people are disproportionately frontline workers and we see that manifesting in the disproportionate number of COVID infections and deaths.
COLBERTAnd we also know the black people still don't have legal protections, access to healthcare, affordable housing and education. And all of these are fundamental parts of a robust democracy. And so we have -- during the pandemic and then the recent spate of very visible violence against black people in the United States. We know that black people are denied rights and so I think that the ongoing process of not just emancipation, but abolition of the system of slavery is ongoing.
NNAMDIKelly Navies is back with us now. She's a Museum Specialist and Oral Historian at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History. Let me go to Paul in Washington D.C. Paul, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
PAULYeah, I was calling. I grew up. My father was born in 20s in northwest Louisiana in Lincoln Parish and I remember him talking about when I was a kid in the 60s that Juneteenth was sort of almost a de facto public holiday for black folks around there. But then I never really remembered it being talked about much until I think sort of like you said something in the 80s or 90s I remember hearing more about it. So that was sort of interesting that it is kind of -- I think it's great that it's become more of a national holiday, but for whatever reason in northwest Louisiana, I guess, east Texas that was where they were hearing about it a lot when he was a kid.
NNAMDIThank you very much for sharing that with us. Kelly Navies, how was Juneteenth celebrated back in 1865.
NAVIESAs I saying, the first Juneteenth they barbequed an entire hog and they sang Negro spirituals and so they ate and feasted and celebrated and there were speeches. And, of course, the celebration of Juneteenth evolved as African American culture evolved in the last 150 years. So today you still find the barbeque, but the music has changed. The African American national anthem became central in the early 20th century. But now, for example -- well, we can talk about this later. But when my family celebrates it, we have children sing. We have live drumming. We have a DJ and then we have poetry and all kinds of things as well.
NNAMDIWell, we have protests against police violence and systemic racism and we have a global pandemic to contend with, has there ever been a Juneteenth quite like this one, Kelly Navies?
NAVIESWell, there's definitely been other times in history that have been as fraught with racial conflict and tension, but this is a special time for sure. And I think that this year it will be especially significant. African Americans are confronted with two pandemics as we say, right? Racism, white supremacy and this COVID-19. And it's affecting our communities more than many others. And it's the entire world is affected by these two pandemics as well.
NAVIESSo we're confronted with this life and death issue on two fronts. And I think that Juneteenth is going to be especially poignant this year even if you can't actually meet with your family and community. I know in my family we're going to do a Zoom call this year. But metaphorically speaking Juneteenth gives us a collective space to meditate and reflect upon these issues and look back to the past to how we got to the place that we are today.
NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue this conversation with Soyica Colbert, a Professor of African American Studies and Performing Arts at Georgetown University and Kelly Navies, Museum Specialist and Oral Historian at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. And take your calls at 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWe're talking about the history of Juneteenth with Kelly Navies and Soyica Colbert, and taking your calls. Soyica Colbert, just before we went to that break I asked Kelly Navies had there ever been a Juneteenth quite like this one with all that's going on, police violence, systemic racism. In addition the D.C. Black History Celebration Committee along with the organization 100 Fathers Incorporated and others, they're organizing a black fathers motorcade this Sunday. It's going to be a memorial and a celebration.
NNAMDIThe memorial is to black men killed by police and by violence. The celebration is of their endurance as black fathers and their often ignored contributions to their communities. That motorcade, it's our understanding departs at 1:00 P.M. from the African American Civil War Memorial on Vermont Avenue will wind its way up to East Washington to Ballou High School where there will be awards handed out there to young men who are trying to get ahead in life. Soyica, how does this fit in with the entire spirit of Juneteenth as far as you're concerned?
COLBERTI think it's an important acknowledgement of black people's contribution, black fathers in particular in this case. And, you know, Juneteenth marks a commemoration of a milestone in American history. And that's why holidays are important and memorials are important as well. And so I think, you know, black people have endured, you know, racism and violence throughout the history of the United States, but they've also found ways to celebrate black life. And I think that that's also an important part of the freedom project that we see being commemorated and being animated via the protests that are taking place right now.
NNAMDIHere now is Sabrina in Rockville, Maryland. Sabrina, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
SABRINAGood afternoon. It's nice to be on your show, Kojo.
SABRINAWell, I just wanted to chime in because one of the things that you were asking about was when did we first learn about Juneteenth. And I grew up with a family from Texas. Both my parents grew up in Texas. So it was part of growing up. But I think the difference is it wasn't -- I didn't really understand it until I was in about fifth or sixth grade. And I remember there was a history lesson in which we were talking about slavery. And I don't remember what the teacher said. But I raised my hand and said, "That's not true," and proceeded to tell a story about my family and what I knew about and ended up being sent to the principle.
NNAMDIWow. But how times have changed, I guess. But thank you very much for sharing that story with us, Sabrina. Soyica, President Donald Trump had originally planned to hold a campaign rally on June 19th in Tulsa, Oklahoma. But announced he would delay the rally by one day. What did you think when you heard that news, Soyica?
COLBERTI wasn't surprised that he planned to hold the rally on Friday. I was pleasantly surprised that he decided to delay it. I think that the president has continually affirmed the values of the Confederacy. We see that evidence in his response to the violence in Charlottesville and also his response to calls to rename federal bases that are named after Confederate soldiers and generals. And so this ongoing attachment to the Confederate history is something that's a part of his campaign and his legacy as a president. And I think it's something that we're really trying to come to terms with as country and to grips with. And so it was pleasant surprise that he decided to delay the rally, because normally he will double down on these investments when he's faced with critique.
NNAMDIWe got a tweet from Martha who says, "I wanted to remember Al Edwards who as a member of the Texas legislature made Juneteenth a state holiday. Edwards died earlier this year." Kobiyashi tweets to us, "I'm a teacher. And I was never taught a single thing about Juneteenth. I'll try my best to teach it to my fifth graders." And now here is Catherine in Gainesville, Virginia. Catherine, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
CATHERINEYes, actually that was my tweet. I use that handle. And I am teacher who never was taught anything about Juneteenth in elementary school, high school or college, and I do teach fifth grade and I want to include the topic in my lessons. And I curious if there are any resources that I could access to do a better job at this?
NNAMDIWell, we have two right here. One is Kelly Navies. Would you care to respond to that, Kelly?
NAVIESYes, yes, absolutely. The website for the National Museum of African American History and Culture contains lots of resources. You could go there today and you can find a virtual tour by our former director and current Secretary of the Smithsonian Lonny Bunch that will take you through our Slavery and Freedom Exhibitions. On Juneteenth, tomorrow, there will be a full day of programming posted including activities for children. So there are a number of things that you can access from our website. And that's www.nmaahc.si.edu.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. I'd like to play a clip of Actor James Earl Jones reading from Frederick Douglas's speech "What to the Slave is the 4th of July?"
JAMES EARL JONESThis Fourth of July is yours not mine. You may rejoice. I must mourn. To drag a man in fetters into the grand illuminated temple of liberty, and call upon him to join you in joyous anthems, were inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony. Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak today? What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham, your boasted liberty, an unholy license, your national greatness, swelling vanity, your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless, your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence.
NNAMDIKelly, I wonder if you might provide some of the context around this speech that Frederick Douglas made, a keynote address given at an Independence Day celebration on July 5, 1852?
NAVIESYes, of course. So July 5th interestingly enough was an emancipation day for New York State. So he didn't choose that day lightly. And this speech is given in 1852 as you mentioned. The same year as Uncle Tom's Cabin is released. Not long after the fugitive slave law has become the law of the land. Debates around slavery are reaching the crescendo that will lead to the Civil War. And Frederick Douglas is highlighting the hypocrisy in celebrating independence and ideals of freedom in a country that still maintains an institution of slavery. So it says it all actually. And he asks many questions like, "Are those freedoms extended to us?" And you can ask that question today and still the answer would be, you know, a resounding "No."
NNAMDIIndeed. Soyica Colbert, a lot of people still have a problem with Independence Day, a lot of African Americans; isn't that correct?
COLBERTYeah, I would agree. I mean, I think that one things that gets bandied about when we quote Douglas's speech is the fact that when he says, "What to a slave is the Fourth of July?" He's literally is talking about what to the slave is the Fourth of July. We're talking about people who are still enslaved and that continues as we think about how our democracy evolves over time, which is to say that the basis of slavery and the institutions that are built through it continue to be the institutions that we inhabit today. And so when we're thinking about celebrating independence there's always ways that it was foreclosed to black people and so we have to work to reform our institutions to make freedom more accessible to all of us.
NNAMDIA listener tweets, "I'm from Massachusetts. I'm white. It's a source of frustration that I didn't learn about Juneteenth until the first time I moved to the mid-Atlantic in 1994 in my 20s. But I'm assuming I'm not alone. At least I'm glad I know about it as an adult." Soyica, are we seeing a trend toward more education about Juneteenth and its history? We only have about one minute left.
COLBERTI think so. I mean, this conversation is very important. The activities that are happening in Washington D.C. and throughout the country are important parts of educating folks. And we have the great advantage of being able to go to the Smithsonian now that it's reopening and to other institutions to learn more.
NNAMDIAnd I'm afraid just about all the time we have unless Kelly Navies, you can tell us in 30 seconds what your plans are this Juneteenth?
NAVIESWell, my family has been celebrating for 50 years and this year we're having a Zoom Juneteenth. So it won't be the same, but we couldn't let it pass.
NNAMDIOh, that's wonderful. And, of course, Governor Ralph Northam of Virginia recently announced plans to make Juneteenth a state holiday. And now 47 states recognize Juneteenth. But we'll have to find out what making it a state holiday would entail. I'm afraid that's all the time we have. Kelly Navies, Soyica Colbert, thank you so much for joining us. We're going to take a short break. When we come back we'll talk about the cultural traditions, especially food, around Juneteenth. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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