What is Juneteenth and how is this 156-year-old holiday celebrated today?

On Juneteenth, Black Americans commemorate June 19, 1865, the day Black Union soldiers in the Civil War brought news of the Emancipation Proclamation to Galveston, Texas, freeing enslaved people in the South. Today, descendants across the U.S. commemorate the holiday with block parties, parades, rallies, festivals, cookouts and educational events. Samuel Collins III, a historian and Juneteenth Legacy Project co-chair, explains how Galveston, the birthplace of Juneteenth, has preserved the 156-year tradition and why it's important to keep the observation going.

Video Transcript

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SAMUEL COLLINS III: So July 4 represents a freedom birthday for the country. June 19, 1865 represents a freedom birthday for the enslaved people or the former enslaved people. So Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation proclamation September 22, 1862. Galveston was under Union control as early as October of 1862. But there was the battle of Galveston on January 1 when the Emancipation Proclamation was to go into effect. And the Confederacy won back control of Galveston.

The news was not late getting to Texas. So that's a myth that needs to be debunked. There was at least 125 newspapers, according to DJ Norman Cox, that wrote a book, "Juneteenth 101." He has found at least 125 newspapers that mentioned the Emancipation Proclamation. So it was not late. And even though they could not read the newspaper, many of them would have heard the enslavers and businesspeople talking about Lincoln.

But Lincoln was not the president of the Confederacy. And the Confederacy had no plans to listen to his instructions. So it wasn't until Granger arrived with thousands of soldiers, many of them United States Colored Troops-- by January of 1866, General Philip Sheridan states that he had 6,500 white soldiers and 19,768 Black soldiers. That represented 75% of the soldiers that came in.

And newspaper reports from July of 1865 state that a telegraph went out from Galveston on June 20 that says Galveston is now occupied by colored troops. This has not been taught in our classrooms. This has not been shared within individuals, that Black soldiers walked the streets of Galveston, bringing the message of freedom to the enslaved people of Texas, the enslaved people in Galveston, and to the enslavers to say, hey, we are here. And you need to cut it out, stop.

The star represented a burst of new life. And the red, white, and blue are the colors of the American flag. Our blood is in the soul. We too are Americans. Yes, we honor the red, black, and green and the history of the motherland and the continent of Africa. But many of the people born today are far removed from the original birth place of Africa.

So America is our home. This is where we grew up. That does not mean that we don't value the DNA that has been passed down through generations that give us our superpower of survival and resilience. We understand that those that have survived so that we could be here are the true heroes. We owe it to our ancestors to celebrate because they chose to celebrate.

Juneteenth is not just a single-day celebration. It usually kicks off two or three weeks in advance with banquets, festivals, galas, pageants, parades. Some of this has been restricted because of the pandemic. That's why this year is so important.

On June 19, a week from Saturday, we are going to have the biggest street party and festival. If you're not here, join in virtually, and get your party on because we are going to celebrate freedom on the island.

So you talked about food. We have barbecue here. We have seafood here on the island that is enjoyed at some of our local restaurants. We love to eat. We love to sing. We love to celebrate. And we love to acknowledge our history and the contributions of our ancestors as we take this torch--

I heard Joe Madison say this. I want to take my torch and light your torch with information, knowledge, and power. So as I light your torch, those young people can light the torch of each other to be inspired to tell these stories and to feel proud about the history.

Maya Angelou has a quote. "History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived. But if faced with courage, need not be lived again."

Have the courage to make sure that we never, ever see a family divided through an auction, that we never, ever see individuals, our loved ones in chains, that we never, ever take a step backwards when people try to take us back to what was perceived as a great America. We're going to create a great America in the future where everyone in this absolute equality that we look for is possible.

Absolute equality is not about equal results. It's about creating an environment where everyone has the opportunity to become their very best self without hurdles or barriers being put in front of them to stop their development of growth. So grow as much as you can. Produce as much as you can. But love as much as you can by helping the fellow Americans and fellow humans on this planet.

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