Juneteenth is the oldest celebrated commemoration of the enslavement of Africans in the United States. It has many names — Freedom Day, Jubilee Day, Liberation Day, Emancipation Day — but no other name has been used as frequently as Juneteenth. This joyous African American holiday began on June 19, 1865, in Galveston, Texas. Many Americans have never heard of, nor learned about this historical event in their school textbooks.
I, too, was once oblivious to this day. I can’t remember when I first learned about Juneteenth, but It wasn’t until the Black Lives Matter uprising of 2020 that it became significant to my family when I, among countless other Americans, began to see a shift in our country after the murder of George Floyd.
Last year, in most Black households, there was a sense of reprieve from the endless supply of videos on police brutality when the interest of Juneteenth began to surface heavily online. A celebration of images expressing Black joy and honor around the country went viral. As a Chicago mother who celebrates Black history all year round, I found several virtual events scheduled during the month of June in which families could participate safely. Unfortunately, due to COVID-19, we were not comfortable attending any of the amazing in-person events we read about. Not to be outdone by the virus, we took our children on a driving and walking tour around the South Side and West Side of the city to learn and see the historical contributions made by Black freedom fighters then and now.
During the tours, we stopped at Black businesses, such as Can't Believe It's Not Meat in Hyde Park for lunch. We talked about what joy our ancestors must have felt on that day. And we talked about what it must have been like for the men, women, and children who were forced into work that never provided them financial compensation, nor security in the right to stay connected to their families — something some of us are privileged to have strengthened during our months of quarantine.
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Although the formal recognition of the abolishment of slavery (also known as the 13th Amendment) brought much joy to enslaved Africans at the time of its announcement back in 1865, June 19th wasn't recognized as a holiday until 1979 when it passed legislation in Texas. It's now a state holiday in 49 of the 50 states (including Illinois), but has yet to be recognized as a national holiday.
In some areas, it is a day, a week, or a month marked with celebrations, guest speakers, picnics and family gatherings. It is a time for rejoicing, processing, and planning for the future. Some would say its growing popularity signifies a level of growth, maturity and dignity that's long overdue. The recent acknowledgment of the racial trauma inflicted on people of African descent is being displayed in cities across the country. People of all races, nationalities, and religions are now acknowledging 400+ years of legalized horror. Honoring those that built the wealth of this nation is an honorable place to start the healing process — especially in the city of Chicago.