All persons held as slaves … shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.
In our day when attention-grabbing news that occurs anywhere can be common conversation everywhere within hours, Juneteenth is a bit hard to fathom. The news that millions of people were free took two-and-a-half years to travel from Washington, D.C., to Galveston, Texas.
While 1860s communication technology was primitive, the telegraph was capable of spreading such information across the country within a day or two. But a closer look at President Abraham Lincoln’s “Emancipation Proclamation” suggests why its news traveled so slowly.
Because the proclamation only applied to slaves in Confederate states, the South and its slaveholders had no incentive to comply until forced to do so. Meantime, it was in their personal interest to keep the news from their slaves.
The slaves in and around Galveston, Texas, only learned of their freedom on June 19, 1865, after Union forces landed there with the news both of the Emancipation Proclamation and the Confederate Army’s surrender. Imagine the Galveston slaves’ joy upon suddenly learning that the War was over and they were free!
Juneteenth, as that event came to be called, has been a special time for African-Americans ever since. That it has not been observed more widely and universally over the 156 years since is yet-another indictment of American society’s racial attitudes.
As the subject of racism in American life has returned to the forefront in recent years, one of the more positive things that has happened is that Juneteenth commemorations are becoming more numerous and widespread. And this isn’t just occurring in major metropolitan areas with large Black communities, but also in smaller, more rural communities that nevertheless have had significant Black populations as a part of their heritage.
That’s been especially true here in the Alleghenies. Because so many of our communities were founded and developed around industrial mills and mines, African-Americans were drawn here as laborers during the Great Migration of people from the South to the Northeast and Midwest from 1916 to 1970.
In that context, it shouldn’t be surprising to learn that Everett has a Juneteenth Program scheduled for June 19 at the Train Station Museum. Stories and displays will tell the history of African-Americans in that community. For information, 814-652-9174.
Johnstown’s Juneteenth events have been on and off over the past decade but are back on in a big way this year. June 12 will feature a music festival with six performing acts, food and merchandise vendors at Peoples Natural Gas Park. Then there will be a variety of programs and activities June 13-19, mostly at Central Park. For information, visit the Johnstown Branch NAACP’s Facebook page.
The City of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County have blossomed with Juneteenth programming over the past few years. From June 18-27, there will be a WPA Juneteenth and Black Music Festival along Fifth Avenue with three stages, a parade, 75 food booths and 40 exhibitors.
A Juneteenth National “Freedom Day” will take place over the weekend of June 18-20 at Mellon Park with entertainment, soul food, and vendors. Musical entertainment over the three days will range from a battle of the bands to hip-hop and classic soul.
Frick Environmental Center will be having a Juneteenth Concert from noon to 2 p.m. June 19. This is a free and family-friendly concert. There also will be tours of the center’s “Slavery to Freedom Garden.” Advance registration is required. PittsburghParks.org, click on “Experience.”
For information on all of the Juneteenth activities in and around the Steel City, use “Juneteenth Pittsburgh” in your favorite search engine.
Juneteenth provides great opportunities to enjoy African-American culture in a positive way, learn history that we all need to know – and ponder the reasons why it is taking so long for true freedom to reach Black people.
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To respond to this column — or read other columns by Dave Hurst — visit www.hurstmediaworks.com.