What Is Juneteenth & Why Should We Celebrate It?

by Erin Phillips | Jun 19, 2020 | Articles

This article is the first in a two-part series covering cultural holidays and racial reconciliation.

As summer begins, our family usually anticipates the holidays and celebrations that it brings. But with social distancing guidelines, many summer celebrations are wiped from our calendar—parades, weddings, birthday parties, and even the state fair.

While I recognize the current pandemic may alter the way we engage socially, I disagree that celebrations and holiday festivities should be dismissed altogether due to uncertainty and fear… Rather, celebrations, especially during times of hardship are crucial. They offer a time for reflection and thanksgiving of communal blessings, an occasion to bestow honor, and an opportunity to refresh the heart with joy and hope. Best of all, celebrating with others can draw us into more meaningful relationships with God and one another.

“That Your Children May Know”

In the Bible, we see many examples of corporate celebrations complete with worship and feasts commemorating major events in the life of Israel: deliverance from bondage, the defeat of enemies, new construction, and reconstruction. In Leviticus 23, God outlined detailed directions for His people and commanded strict observances such as the Day of Atonement, Feast of Tabernacles, the Feast of Unleavened Bread and Passover. Holidays, derived from the Old English meaning “holy-day”, were both civic and religious observances (v. 21), days of worship God set apart, symbolic of his redemptive plan for humanity, and foreshadowing the person and work of Jesus, the coming Messiah.

Families’ regular keeping of these festivals as communities, were like a sequenced rehearsal of important milestones that God did not want his people to forget. He commanded the people to read the Law so that no generation would grow up and “have not known anything” about God and his faithfulness (Deut. 31:9-13). The feasts he instituted were purposeful memorials to what God had done, teaching the next generation, and deepening the understanding of the rich heritage and hope shared by the children of God (Lev. 23:40-43). These remembrances were important.

Overlooked Observance

Recently, our attention has been drawn to the long-endured plight of African Americans due to centuries of dehumanization, racism, and structural injustice. This has not only brought about protests and political movements, across the country but also discussions about America’s bloodstained history and its intermittent progress toward realizing its founding ideals of freedom and justice for all.

Since there is heightened awareness, I feel it is a prime moment to introduce what is, to many, a new holiday: Juneteenth.

Juneteenth, a combination of the words “June” and “nineteenth”, commemorates the end of the system of chattel slavery in The United States. On June 19, 1865, a couple of months after the end of the Civil War, Union Troops finally arrived in Galveston Texas—the furthest state of the Confederacy—with the report of the surrender and to give the announcement that begins:

“…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. ” – General Orders, Number 3; Headquarters District of Texas, Galveston, June 19, 1865

Their arrival was the enforcement of an order given over two years and a half years prior, in Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. It had already declared over four million men, women, and children held in bondage as slaves, free on January 1, 1863. However, the news had not yet reached Texas.

Why Celebrate Juneteenth?

Such a major event in the lives of African Americans and for our country is worth remembering and celebrating, right? Yet, Juneteenth is likely not on your desk calendar. It’s not an official national holiday and most people have never heard of it at all.

As sojourners in this country, I believe it would benefit Christians, especially white Christians, to consider the tension in which holidays like Juneteenth were birthed that distinguishes them and dare to observe, solemnly, with their African American brothers and sisters. Then, together, like Israel, we can look back and mourn past transgressions, consider our own in the present and celebrate the heritage of God’s faithful love and mercy toward us.

Celebration Redefined

So how do we handle the hard realities history raises? Well, we can learn from Jewish practice that remembering and retelling are integral to celebration. We are to recount all—not just the flattering parts—of our sin and brokenness. This is why I find Juneteenth to be such an important day to recognize, yet difficult for some African Americans to joyfully celebrate.

However, we find a biblical response to this tension in the psalms, specifically Psalm 78 and 106. In these passages, the psalmist gives thanks for God’s “glorious deeds” and “steadfast love” but does not hide Israel’s sins from the next generation. In this, we see that Israel’s observances not only included jubilant festivals but also days of solemn self-reflection and self-denial.

Our observances are much the same. For example, Memorial Day (beginning in the 1860s) was created to honor the hundreds of thousands of soldiers who died in defense of the country in its bloodiest conflict.

But what to speak of a memorial for the blood of millions of Africans who perished in the Transatlantic Slave Trade or for their descendants who died under the cruel existence of chattel slavery? Few want to linger on the sins of their forefathers, let alone their own. It is uncomfortable, to say the least. Still, it is necessary.

In the book Barracoon: The Story of the Last Black Cargo, Zora Neale Hurston tells the story of Oluale Kossola, also known as Cudjo Lewis, a former slave and one of the last survivors of the transatlantic trade. He explained in 1927 [translation], “I can’t tell you about the son before I tell you about the father; and therefore I can’t talk about the father until I tell you about the grandfather.”

Cudjo’s words are a reminder for us today: how we envision our past will shape how we see ourselves today. The denigration of indentured African servants and the descent of the colonists into abysmal racialized chattel slavery was not instant, but gradual. It is reasonable to expect that the reverse will be incremental as well. American Christians—no matter the race—should recognize that the hidden effects of these long-held attitudes and behaviors— the implicit bias in men’s hearts and institutions and systems—stand in opposition to our pursuit of biblical unity in diversity. 

As we consider Juneteenth, I found this framework helpful for thinking through the obscure nature of the unheralded holiday.

Celebrating Together: What Is Juneteenth?

The observance Juneteenth began in 1866 when finely dressed former slaves and their descendants started making an annual pilgrimage to Galveston, Texas to reunite with family members and celebrate emancipation. People gathered on church grounds or near rivers to participate in traditional festivities which included music, fishing, rodeos, and motivational speeches.

All looked forward to the buffet of signature dishes, watermelon red soda pop, and—as was the case in many of Israel’s feasts—the meat (pit barbecue) was the centerpiece. Together with their children’s children, they listened to recitation of the words that declared, even if just on paper, the absolute rights of equality for which they had hoped. Freedmen and women would celebrate survival and God’s provision and also pray for protection in the face of continuing violence and other attempts to refuse the rights legally granted.

Over the years, as African Americans scattered in attempts to flee the terror and economic oppression of the (un)Reconstructed South, Juneteenth celebrations stretched to other states. Though celebrated since 1866, Juneteenth did not become an official state holiday in Texas until 1979, over one hundred years later. Now, 150 years after its beginning, Juneteenth is formally observed by all but four states.

Celebrating as a Way to Learn

The notice of freedom took two and a half years to reach Texas and, upon closer inspection of the original Emancipation Proclamation order, we learn that it didn’t really free any of the nation’s slaves (the Thirteenth Amendment formally abolished slavery in December 1865). Abraham Lincoln’s decree—an ultimatum to rebel territories outside of his control (Confederate states)—didn’t apply to loyal border states nor the areas already under northern control. Lincoln couldn’t enforce compliance, hence many slaveholders were left to decide when and how to free their slaves. Some withheld the news until after harvest or migrated their slaves west to avoid the reach of the Union army; others, only by force.

Biographers and historians agree that while the proclamation is said to have shifted the war’s focus, it was more of a wartime measure by a president desperate to preserve the Union, not the moral resolution of a conflicted leader who acquiesced to abolitionists or the penance of a man determined to offer to slaves the liberties espoused by the country’s founders. This distinction helps us really understand the chronology of emancipation. Ultimately, it helps us see the intent and effect of colonial laws (Ex. Virginia Slave Codes), presidential proclamations, and subsequent constitutional amendments (Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth) on the lives of captive slaves, free Blacks, and their descendants. With the whitewashed narrative peeled away, the precepts of White supremacy and favored opinions for segregation are exposed (Ex. American Colonization Society).

Celebrate to Teach the Next Generation

Just as the Lord instructed the children of Israel to remember their deliverance from bondage and to celebrate this day as a lasting ordinance for generations to come(Ex. 12:17), we should celebrate Juneteenth as a commemoration of the end of slavery. Many African Americans have strived to keep the observance of this holiday alive despite adversity, likely in response to thwarted efforts to hinder the freedom and equality.

Upon quizzing my own children, I realized that their knowledge of Juneteenth was only cursory. Though I had discussed it with them, we had never formally observed the holiday or participated in a local community celebration.

Thinking back to the importance of frequently recalling important events in our history, I knew I needed to teach my children the shrouded truths about the origins of both Juneteenth and The Fourth of July—origins that make celebrating them complicated and controversial for me. I had neglected to rehearse the stories and identify for them how the backstories of both holidays display the depravity of man’s heart and the shared need for a Savior.

Celebrate to Mourn

Though African American believers suffer terrible treatment, they persevere in faith in God, giving and sacrificing so much, sometimes their very lives. Lest you think I am hinting at just today’s news headlines; I encourage you to read and watch:

These accounts, and more, show that African Americans faced countless woes: Black codes, convict leasing, sharecropping, Jim Crow, denied votes, fire hoses, and more but persisted in coming together to celebrate. I grieve with them and honor their resilience, thanking God for keeping them and giving them strength.

For my ancestors, Juneteenth was a day for African Americans to celebrate their freedom, culture, and achievements; and a day to praise God. For all Americans, it was a day to consider the cost and the great lengths to obtain such.

Celebrate to Reflect the Beauty of Reconciliation

As awareness of racial injustice has escalated in our nation, Juneteenth has seen a resurgence. That is a good thing. The notice of the holiday, no matter how late, is an opportunity for the Church to learn and to share its genesis and significance with others. Though the task may carry hurt, shame or anger, Lead Pastor of College Park Church, Mark Vroegrop, reminds us we must listen and learn. Then, we must lament and leverage opportunities to grow in our ability to express true unity in the midst of our diversity.

Despite the growing awareness of the masses about Juneteenth (thanks, Twitter), Juneteenth is more than a social media post. Many African Americans understandably struggle with extending the invitation to observe the holiday to those beyond the Black community because the pain is real.. It hurts when many white Americans including some of our brothers and sisters in Christ, reject the unified complaint of racism and deny our reality. Despite the discomfort it might bring, I believe honoring Juneteenth is a step toward breaking down the walls of hostility. It would acknowledge the past and face the painful truth that we are decidedly not in a post-racial America, that our brokenness as a people is not just singular (individual acts of racism), but collective (systemic). It would acknowledge that in our brokenness, the Church can work as one to reflect the beauty of reconciliation and unity.

Invitation to Celebrate

Thus, as my heart leans in reluctantly to celebrate Juneteenth, I am grateful for the detailed biblical account of God’s ordained feasts and celebrations. God promised the blessing of his presence as a reward for obedience to his commands.

“I will put my dwelling place among you, and I will not abhor you. I will walk among you and be your God, and you will be my people” (Lev. 26:11-13). In defiance of the inclination to ignore this forgotten holiday, resolve to take up the mantle of hope from early celebrants of Juneteenth. Now that we’ve answered the question, “what is Juneteenth?” and learned why it is so important, let’s observe this day to remember, mourn, celebrate, teach, and look ahead in anticipation of the great things God will do as he walks among his people.