What is Juneteenth?
Some of us who use our Apple computers’ calendars noticed that Juneteenth is now listed as a holiday. It’s not clear when this was added, but we’re glad to see it there.
Juneteenth – that is, June 19 – has been celebrated since 1865, when, nearly three years after Lincoln’s emancipation proclamation, a general of the Union Army showed up in Galveston, Texas to deliver this message: “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.”
African-Americans have hosted community celebrations on this date ever since.
Seeing the holiday listed on the calendar made us wonder whether there was a local Juneteenth event, so we called New Life Baptist Church in Lacey. We were referred to Clarence Forrester, who was busy organizing the 32nd annual Juneteenth picnic, which was held on June 14.
It was a delightful, welcoming event, attended by well over 150 people and featuring a generous barbecue, music, raffles, kids playing, adults of all ages, and plenty of laughter, hugging, greeting, and friendly conversation.
The picnic was sponsored by the Fred U. Harris Lodge 70, which is part of a tradition of Black Freemasons. Forrester explained that the founder of Black Freemasonry was Prince Hall, a free Black soldier from Boston who fought in the Revolutionary War under George Washington. Hall and his friends were denied membership in a white Masonic Lodge, and denied their request to start their own lodge. They had to appeal to Masons in Ireland to find a sponsor. Even today, the tradition of segregated African-American and white Masonic Lodges persists in the South, and in much of the north as well. It wasn’t until 1993 that a local “mainstream” lodge accepted the Fred U. Harris Lodge as an “affiliate.”
That’s a sad bit of history that’s probably unknown to most white people. Similarly, it’s surprising to us that an annual local celebration of Juneteenth has been held for over 30 years and most of us who aren’t African-American didn’t know about that, either. And honestly, we can’t say we would know about it now if the appearance of the holiday on the Apple calendar hadn’t piqued our curiosity.
For a very long time, Juneteenth has been regarded as a mostly African-American holiday. Now there are hopeful signs that it may evolve into a truly national, multi-racial commemoration of both the exhilarating promise of “absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property” and the betrayal of that promise after Reconstruction. An inclusive annual national remembrance of that history would certainly be a good idea.
But the idea that Juneteenth might be a truly national holiday still draws resistance. Some Apple users even resent having this holiday on their calendars. As one user commented online, “If I and most people from the US have never heard of the holiday, then it isn’t what I’d consider a US holiday.” Another way of saying that is, “Anything I don’t know about I don’t want to know about, so that nothing will change.”
That kind of willful ignorance impedes progress. We hope it is overshadowed by the growing national recognition of Juneteenth by mainstream media, politicians, and people all across the country who are curious enough about what they see on their calendars to learn something about our history and its legacy.
We welcome this new knowledge. All Americans need to learn more about the history and experiences of our African-American neighbors, colleagues, friends and relatives. The burdens of our nation’s history are heavy on their shoulders. And those burdens cannot be lifted without the active engagement of many more informed, educated, and caring white people.