Today’s post isn’t about a memory of growing up in Youngstown. No doubt there were Juneteenth celebrations during the years I was growing up. But most of us outside the Black community were likely not aware of this celebration nor the significant event it commemorated.
This week changed all this when Congress voted and the president signed into law on June 17 the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act. Juneteenth, celebrated since 1866 on June 19 is now a federally recognized holiday. Because June 19 falls on a Saturday this year, the holiday was celebrated with the closure of federal offices on Friday, with the state of Ohio and many local governments following.
Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863 freed slaves in the states of the Confederacy when they came under Union control. The very last state to do so was Texas. The Confederate Army of the Trans-Mississippi did not surrender until June 2. On June 19, 1865 Union Major General Gordon Granger took command of Union troops in Galveston. Shortly after, his troops marched through the streets reading General Order Number 3 that included these words:
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.
Technically, these were not the last slaves to be freed, although they were the last slaves in Confederate states. Slavery remained in effect in the border states of Kentucky and Delaware (they had remained loyal to the Union and the Emancipation Proclamation did not apply to them) until the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment on December 18, 1865. But on June 19, 1866 Blacks in Galveston celebrated the first anniversary of their freedom, calling it Jubilee Day. The celebration spread in the 1800’s and by 1890 was called Juneteenth.
The rise of Jim Crow led to a temporary decline of the celebrations. Then the great migrations of Blacks to the North and West spread the tradition to the major cities of these regions beginning in the 1950’s. Momentum grew in the 1970’s and 1980’s. A Milwaukee celebration in 1978 attracted 100,000. In 1999, Ralph Ellison’s novel Juneteenth brought more attention. In 2003, Congresswoman Sheila Jackson began campaigning for Juneteenth to be a federally recognized holiday.
The first documentation I’ve found of a celebration of Juneteenth in Youngstown was in 2002 at Holy Trinity Missionary Baptist Church on Parkcliffe Avenue on the South Side. On June 19-22 of that year the church hosted games, carnival rides, historical activities, and lessons. The Vindicator article about the events included this information from Tamica D. Green, the event organizer:
Green said the idea to have a celebration here grew out of the church’s desire to do more community outreach and bring the community together to learn and celebrate.
“The church has always been the center of the Juneteenth celebration because of the vital role it played to slaves during slavery and continues to play in the black community today,” she said.
Green said those attending the celebration will be in for a history lesson mixed with lots of fun.
Part of that lesson will come from a freedom walk planned for June 22. The walk will be in honor of all blacks who lead the way to the freedoms that modern-era blacks enjoy. Those participating will be given tidbits of history along the way.
By 2004, the Vindicator reports the expansion of these celebrations to the East Side with three days of events at the Unity Building on McGuffey Road as well as the annual celebration at Holy Trinity Baptist Church.
Most recently, the celebrations have moved downtown to the Youngstown Foundation Amphitheater. Last year’s events occurred under COVID restrictions (WKBN). This year has featured a weeklong slate of events that began June 12 with a Market Street Corridor Cleanup. Today, June 19, the LOUD 102.3 Juneteenth Celebration will take place at the Youngstown Foundation Amphitheater, from 12 pm to 5 pm. There will be live music, food trucks, a job fair and local vendors–as well as free vaccinations! All restrictions have been raised so Joseph Napier and his event organizers are hoping for a big event. The celebrations conclude tomorrow with the Mahoning Valley Fatherhood Coalition Father’s Day prayer service, cookout and car show.
Some worry about two independence days less than a month apart being divisive. I don’t see it. For one thing, it’s a holiday and we Americans love the chance to celebrate. We even celebrate Cinco de Mayo, though many of us are not Latino/a, and it is a Mexican rather than American holiday! For another, what Juneteenth represents is not only freedom for Blacks but freedom for all of us. Slavery and racism are a burden for all of us. The Declaration of Independence states: “all men are created equal.” Juneteenth represents the realization of the dream of July 4. It seems to me that, if anything, the recognition of Black independence makes July 4 a day we all can celebrate more fully, even as all us rightly can celebrate the end of the horror of slavery.
So with that, I wish my fellow Youngstowners in the Black community a joyous Juneteenth Celebration in this historic year.
To read other posts in the Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown series, just click “On Youngstown.” Enjoy!