News & Updates

BPDA Celebrates Juneteenth

Jun 18, 2021

"What, to the American slave, is your Fourth of July?" - Frederick Douglass

July Fourth is recognized as the day America gained its freedom from rule of the British Empire. The day is honored with brilliant firework displays, parades, and unbounded red, white, and blue celebrations of patriotism. 

For many Black Americans, Juneteenth (June 19th), is recognized as the day their ancestors gained their freedom from slavery in America. This day, like July Fourth, is a vital part of our nation’s proud heritage, and a celebration of values and ideals that all Americans hold, unique to only this country in the world. While the colors, displays, and rituals may be different, the recognition and continued remembrance of both days represents our shared values of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

A Brief History

Juneteenth is the oldest national celebration of the end of slavery in the United States, and is very much a part of the history and formation of this country as we know it today. Juneteenth references the date that Union soldiers arrived in Galveston, Texas to announce the end of the Civil War, and the liberation of enslaved persons - June 19, 1865. In popular imagination, the Emancipation Proclamation, issued by President Abraham Lincoln on January 1, 1863, is often seen as the end of slavery. However, this document was very limited, and quite unenforceable in the Confederate states of the South. It was not until General Robert E. Lee surrendered his Confederate forces to General Ulysses S. Grant in Appomattox, Virginia on the night of April 9, 1865, that the Civil War finally ended. This act of surrender allowed Union forces to regain control in southern territory, and bring an end to the institution of slavery.

At the time of the announcement, some 250,000 African-Americans were being held in bondage in Texas, and President Lincoln had already been assassinated. For many of the newly freed persons, claiming this newfound freedom was also fraught with danger. Many ex-slaves were murdered as they tried to leave their plantations. Many others were forced into new forms of exploitation through means such as the Black Codes, which were state laws, conspired to criminalize petty offenses and aimed at keeping freed people tied to their former owners’ plantations and farms. The most sinister crime was vagrancy – the “crime” of being unemployed – which brought a large fine that few blacks could afford to pay. When they couldn’t pay, these “convicts” were leased to private companies and forced into back-breaking labor in coal mines, turpentine factories, and lumber camps. Despite this, the newly-freed Black Americans in Texas who were able to survive, continued to mark June 19 as their day of freedom with celebrations and gatherings in the following years. Celebrations of Juneteenth spread throughout the United States, sometimes family by family, to new cities and frontiers. At other times, it spread far more rapidly, such as during the Great Migration, when millions of Black Americans left the South in droves to find more tolerable living in the North. 

Transition to Today

Juneteenth has become not only a time to commemorate Black liberation from the institution of slavery, but also a time to celebrate the resilience, solidarity, and culture of the Black community. It is a moment for Black Americans to reflect on their ancestral roots, as well as a time to join together to celebrate the freedoms and lives that generations have fought to secure. Today, Juneteenth is marked as much by tradition as it is by the ways that it has adapted over time. During the most difficult times in recent history for Black Americans, communities would use Juneteenth as an opportunity to find strength and peace in one another. The narrative of community growth, progress, and resilience began to emerge over time, and some gatherings even doubled as fundraisers for buying land to host subsequent celebrations. Such was the case with the land that would become Emancipation Park in Houston, Texas. Through all of the moments for joy and solace over time, and for all of the games, dancing, and dress that have become a part of some of the celebrations today, the core remains the same: family, food, and community.

Ultimately, Juneteenth remains incredibly important in modern America. It serves as a celebration of the progress attained over generations of fighting for basic freedoms and rights,while it also serves as a reminder of the work that remains to thoroughly address the inequities that continue to afflict the Black community. On this Juneteenth, and on the holiday from our jobs it has afforded many of us, let us reflect and celebrate how far we have come, while we also refuel our passion for the work necessary to ensure a brighter, more just, and equitable future for all of our children and future generations. 

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