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Five myths about Juneteenth

  • Author: Afi-Odelia Scruggs
    | Opinion
  • Updated: 5 days ago
  • Published June 20

Afi-Odelia Scruggs is an independent investigative journalist based in Cleveland.

President Donald Trump initially planned his first campaign rally since the coronavirus pandemic started spreading widely for Tulsa, Okla., on Friday, June 19. Then he moved it to Saturday to avoid holding the event on Juneteenth. Over the last three decades, the date has gained prominence as an African American celebration of freedom and heritage. This year, however, outrage over the killing of George Floyd has led activists to herald the holiday - and corporations to embrace it as evidence of solidarity. But the attention for Juneteenth has also revived some misconceptions about its origins and practices.

- Myth No. 1

Juneteenth is the nation’s oldest celebration of emancipation.

CNN describes the holiday as “the oldest regular U.S. celebration of the end of slavery.” History.com calls Juneteenth “the longest-running African American holiday.”

But the real oldest celebration of the end of slavery takes place in Gallipolis, a town in southern Ohio. That celebration began on Sept. 22, 1863, a year after President Abraham Lincoln signed the preliminary draft of the Emancipation Proclamation. And Juneteenth isn't the oldest African American holiday related to abolition, either, writes Donald J. Norman-Cox, who has researched and written about the date: Black churches often honor "Watch Night" with a New Year's Eve service that dates back to when enslaved people stayed up to watch for freedom because the Emancipation Proclamation took effect on Jan. 1, 1863.

- Myth No. 2

Juneteenth marks the end of slavery in the United States.

Cleveland's Karamu House, the nation's oldest African American theater, announced a performance slated for Juneteenth because it's "the commemoration of the ending of slavery in America." Encyclopaedia Britannica describes Juneteenth as a "holiday commemorating the end of slavery."

But by the time Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger issued orders to free enslaved people in Texas on June 19, 1865, slavery had technically been abolished two years earlier by Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, which covered the Confederate states. As Union troops retook territory, they emancipated enslaved people living there. And the orders issued on Juneteenth applied only to Texas. Slavery didn't end in states like Kentucky and Delaware, which hadn't seceded and therefore weren't covered by Lincoln's proclamation, until Dec. 18, 1865, when the 13th Amendment was adopted.

- Myth No. 3

Former slaves took Juneteenth across the South.

National Geographic says, "As newly freed Texans began moving to neighboring states, Juneteenth celebrations spread across the South and beyond." CNBC says the holiday spread "as part of the Great Migration of former slaves" out of Texas.

In fact, emancipation celebrations were commonly observed all around the country during the late 19th and early 20th centuries (and, for the record, the Great Migration began around 50 years after the Civil War ended, and it didn't involve only Texans). They marked the days each state was freed, not the Texas holiday. Washington, D.C., celebrates Emancipation Day on April 16, the date Lincoln signed the Compensated Emancipation Act. Some counties in Tennessee, for example, observe Emancipation Day on Aug. 8. The first celebration was held in 1871. The state wasn't subject to the Emancipation Proclamation because Tennessee was under Union control by June 6, 1862 - four months before Lincoln wrote his preliminary draft. But historians think Aug. 8 marks the date that then-Tennessee military governor Andrew Johnson freed his personal slaves in Greenville, Tenn. Johnson eventually became Lincoln's vice president and then successor after his assassination. Emancipation Day celebrations in Ohio attracted thousands and were a stop for campaigning politicians. Ohio has recognized Sept. 22 as Emancipation Day since 2006. That effort was led by a high school history class in Washington Court House, near Columbus. Their testimony for the holiday mentions Juneteenth and urges Ohio to follow Texas's lead in designating an official emancipation holiday.

- Myth No. 4

Texas slaves didn’t learn they were freed until 1865.

Why did news of Lincoln's executive order take so long to reach Texas? One theory is that news traveled so slowly that it took two years for news of the order to arrive. A Bloomberg News article this month said Texas "was the last in the Confederacy to receive word that the Civil War was over and that slavery had been abolished." An NPR story in 2015 said slave owners had kept the news of the proclamation hidden, implying enslaved people in Texas didn't know of the order freeing them.

In fact, though, Lincoln's administration used the era's innovative technology - the telegraph - to send and receive information about the war. News of the final proclamation was disseminated from the War Department's telegraph office on Jan 1, 1863. Norman-Cox says the proclamation was common knowledge by the time Granger arrived in Galveston. On Jan. 14, 1863, a Houston newspaper reported "the resolution endorsing Lincoln's emancipation proclamation was adopted in the Federal House of Representatives 78 - 51." More than 100 Texas newspapers mentioned the Emancipation Proclamation between 1862 and 1864. The real reason people were still in bondage when Union troops arrived is because of local leaders: The Texas Confederate constitution prohibited manumission. Lincoln's directive was only enforced when federal soldiers got to Texas much later. Houston was emancipated on June 20; Austin wasn't liberated until June 23.

- Myth No. 5

African Americans have always celebrated Juneteenth.

When announcing its plans to make Juneteenth a paid holiday, Harvard University described the holiday as "long celebrated as an Independence Day in the African American community." The Albany (N.Y.) Times Union wrote that "for African-Americans, June 19 has always been a day to celebrate freedom."

In fact, Juneteenth celebrations largely died out during Jim Crow;. some historians theorize segregation made the holiday too difficult to observe. But they say the civil rights movement brought national recognition to it later. The catalyst was the Poor People's Campaign, held in the wake of Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination in 1968. The effort included a march on Washington and construction of "Resurrection City," an encampment meant to draw attention to economic inequality and poverty. The final ceremonies included a Juneteenth celebration. And the late folklorist William Wiggins Jr. said those activists took Juneteenth back home with them. "It was, in effect, another great black migration," he told Smithsonian Magazine in 2009.

More recently, a 2017 episode of the ABC sitcom “Black-ish” brought the holiday into popular culture. Now it seems Juneteenth is poised to become what its promoters aim for: a national expression of African American culture and freedom.

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