Juneteenth: A day to remember, reconnect, and celebrate freedom

June 13, 2021

Q&A

Historian Lauranett Lee

When Union Soldiers arrived in Galveston, Texas, two years after the Emancipation Proclamation took effect, the last remaining enslaved people in the United States were told of their freedom. This news, delivered on June 19, 1865, led to celebrations around the country that would later be called Juneteenth. In 2020, Virginia adopted Juneteenth as a state holiday. And for the first time, the University of Richmond will this year honor Juneteenth as an official holiday. 

Recently, public historian and UR adjunct professor Lauranett Lee, who was asked to speak at the announcement of the state holiday last year, talked about the history and continued significance of Juneteenth.

Can you provide some background and context for Juneteenth?

It was first celebrated in Galveston, when the enslaved people who were farthest away from hearing about the fall of Confederacy learned that they were free. They heard it from Gen. Gordon Granger, who made this announcement in the thick of the balcony of a hotel. And you can imagine, across America and in each of the different cities that were grappling with this new change, there were a mix of emotions. Those who had been formerly enslaved were hopeful that they would find family — that they would now have an opportunity to use all the skills and knowledge that they had to further their and their family's wellbeing in this country.

We can look at Juneteenth as a bridge, moving from an enslaved society to a free society. A lot is wrapped up in that Juneteenth moment.

Was it common for enslaved people not to realize the Emancipation Proclamation had taken effect?

That was across the landscape. Because of the way slavery worked, many enslaved people were not literate and could not read and write. If they had seen it written somewhere they would not have known. Those who could read or write oftentimes kept word from enslaved people to keep them working.

And once knowledge became more widespread, there was a great rush to establish schools. Many of those schools were founded in churches, or with the support of churches. And churches and schools became very interconnected, particularly after the Civil War, because of that quest for literacy.

How is Juneteenth commemorated today?

It's a celebration that happens more frequently now than it has in the past, because it has gained more awareness. Usually, food is involved and a church service. There are opportunities for families to reconnect with members they have not seen or are just learning about. And that was the big thing, immediately after the Civil War, finding, reconnecting with family, because of the hideous nature of slavery they had been separated by sale — and many times lost touch. This idea of reconnecting is really at the heart of it.

Why is it particularly important in Virginia?

In Virginia, it holds a lot of resonance, because so many enslaved people were here. It was in many ways the cradle of slavery. On the eve of the Civil War there were half a million enslaved people in Virginia. And Richmond itself was a major slave trading hub. And so, in Virginia, now, to recognize it at this time, is a racial reckoning.

How might people celebrate Juneteenth this year?

There are opportunities to volunteer and be engaged in civic life, because there's so much to do. There are plenty of opportunities to listen to webinars to learn something about our history, but also a time to celebrate as well. It's like any holiday when you would be around family and friends — in many ways like a family reunion.  

I think people might wonder, for someone who's not African American, ‘Is it a day that I can celebrate?’ It's a day for everybody to celebrate, because that was when the enslaved people in Galveston learned that they were now free. That's worthy of celebration by anyone who appreciates freedom — and who advocates for freedom. And I would hope everyone would enjoy the day, learn something about history. And then share it with somebody else.

 

Top photo: Juneteenth celebrations in Richmond, around 1905. Source: Library of Congress