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The Origins of Juneteenth

June 23, 2021

By Tim Kelly

Communications Office

(Tim Kelly, Communications Office)

This video was shared with all Corrections staff on June 18, 2021. Prior to Juneteenth on June 19th, The Department’s Equity, Diversity, Inclusion, and Respect Director Dr. Adrian Thompson discussed the origins and history of the recently added state and national holiday. Below is the transcript for his message.

In 1852, Fredrick Douglas addressed audience about what the fourth of July meant to the enslaved people of America. He suggested that to the slave, the fourth of July reveals to him, more than all other days of the in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is a constant victim. Fredrick Douglas was not denouncing celebration, or even the celebration of Americas independence. He spoke that way about the 4th of July because he was addressing the issues of that America. He spoke that way because he believed in what America could become.

11 years after this speech, slavery would be legally ended, two years after that slavery would be officially ended. This official ending is now celebrated as Juneteenth. On June 19, 1865, Union General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, to inform enslaved African-Americans of their freedom and that the Civil War had ended. The holiday received its name by combining June and nineteenth. The day is also sometimes called “Juneteenth Independence Day,” “Freedom Day” or “Emancipation Day.” Juneteenth in the past was largely celebrated by just African Americans. But in recent years it has started to gain traction towards a mainstream holiday. Earlier this year, Washington State made Juneteenth a state holiday, and Tuesday June 16th, Juneteenth became a national holiday.

As we mark this occasion and the upcoming holiday, I want to talk to you about the power of celebration in the African American community. The power that kept the spirit of Juneteenth alive all this time. There is African concept called Sankofa. Sankofa literally translates into “it is not taboo to fetch what is at risk of being left behind.” This concept teaches that in order to move forward we must go back to our roots.

Juneteenth, is remembered in the place of Galveston Texas. How does one location become a placeholder for black celebration? It happens because African Americans transformed that space to have unique meaning. In the study of cultural behavior, academics call this transformation of space, Placemaking. Understanding the Placemaking in the Black community helps fight the negative portrayal of black spaces and brings to light the relationship between structure and agency, between domination and resistance. Placemaking can be used to explain how blacks and other marginalized individuals “cling” to places seen as run down, back words, and degenerate.

The Black community chooses a place like Galveston and other parts of Texas, to not only commemorate the end of slavery, but transformed those spaces into places to live and have a life. One thing Blacks celebrate during Juneteenth is this idea of linked fate, the notion that individual outcomes are based in the wellbeing of the group. By linking to one another, and by looking back to so that we can move forward, or Sankofa, Blacks make place wherever they were. Creating a form of resistance to oppression in body and in space. What we see in Juneteenth is what we see in many Black celebrations. Blacks creating sites of endurance, belonging, and resistance through social interactions with each other. This placemaking allows for Blacks to resist being cast as victims of history or of socioeconomic deprivation, instead they become individuals who transform places by inscribing them with their own interpretations, meanings and cultural significance.

By looking back, we find several things, but most importantly we find our history, American History. We understand that African Americans have played an intrinsic role in democracy, freedom, and American greatness. When we gather with people, we hold remembrance. Remembrance is the source of our transformational power through social interactions.

Historically, the Juneteenth celebration was a time for reassuring each other, for praying, for gathering and remembering family members. Juneteenth continued to be highly revered in Texas decades later, with many former slaves and descendants making the annual pilgrimage back to Galveston on June 19th.

It is evident now that Nation has joined with Washington State to hold this day of remembrance with us. of the Department’s commitment to partner with others to transform lives for a better Washington.