What is Juneteenth and why does it matter? A Lancaster African American historian explains

Juneteenth

FILE- In this June 19, 2020, file photo, protesters chant as they march after a Juneteenth rally at the Brooklyn Museum, in the Brooklyn borough of New York. (AP Photo/John Minchillo, File)

HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) — In 2019, Pa. Governor Tom Wolf signed legislation to designate June 19 as “Juneteenth National Freedom Day.” In 2021, Gov. Wolf made it a special holiday and gave state employees June 18 off as observance.

But, what is it and why is it our newest federal holiday?

Juneteenth is a celebration of the announcement of freedom in Texas in 1865, following the Emancipation Proclamation being passed in 1863 by President Abraham Lincoln. But, as the African American Historical Society of South Central Pa. told abc27, the enslaved Africans in Texas were unaware of their freedom, as union troops gave no lines of information to them like they were supposed to.

“The real impact of the event is that this was the first opportunity that formerly enslaved Africans could celebrate their freedom much as their ancestors had celebrated Haitian Independence over a half-century before,” Dr. Leroy Hopkins, an AAHSSCPA historian said. “It is a milestone in our nation’s history when the country’s original sin, slavery, was officially abolished.”

In a press release sent for Juneteenth, Gov. Wolf also mentioned that the slaves were never informed of the Emancipation Proclamation or the end of the Civil War entirely, as Robert E. Lee surrendered in Virginia in April of 1865.

”I was proud to sign the legislation recognizing Juneteenth as a state holiday, and it is past time for this important holiday to be recognized by the federal government, as well. Thank you to the lawmakers who worked so hard to pass legislation this week recognizing Juneteenth as a federal holiday, and to President Biden for signing it into law,” Gov. Wolf said.

In 2020, many in the nation protested police brutality against Black people in America in the wake of the killing of George Floyd. With that, Juneteenth became a hot topic on social media, as many were unaware of the holiday and its importance.

Why?

“Black voices were ignored for many generations in this country,” Dr. Hopkins said. “Carter G. Woodson started what was called ‘Negro History Week.’ After the end of the Civil Rights period which featured public agitation for rights long denied, political assassinations, and many American cities in flames during so-called hot summers, Black History Month was made an official event by presidential decree. This did not, however, get the story of African Americans into the schools or the news media.”

According to Dr. Hopkins, people were unaware because of ignorance.

“The current debate over ‘cancel culture’ and ‘Critical Race Theory’ indicates the unwillingness of significant portions of our nation to consider or even discuss the injustices of the past which have enabled the current inequities. America did not know about Juneteenth because essentially America did not want to know,” Dr. Hopkins said.

In the Midstate, Juneteenth has been celebrated for a decade at the Crispus Attucks Community Center in Lancaster County. And now, more Midstate organizations are spreading awareness and hosting events to honor and show what needs to change.

“We learn in school to repeat certain phrases without really understanding their importance. In the context of Juneteenth what does it mean that our government is to protect our ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’?,” Dr. Hopkins said.

Dr. Hopkins says that these historical events and impacts are now making their way into public minds, but there is a long way to go.

“Making Juneteenth a federal holiday is a first step,” Dr. Hopkins said. “I would hope that a Juneteenth holiday would encourage us to make comparisons with July 4th. What does freedom mean if it is not shared by all?”

AAHSSCPA is an independent society located in Lancaster that collects, analyzes, and interprets basic information about the life of African Americans in the South Central region of Pennsylvania.

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