June 19 became a federal holiday last year, but many people may still not know much about it or what it commemorates. Recently, KUNC’s Beau Baker met with Dr. Janine Weaver-Douglas, director of the Marcus Garvey Cultural Center at the University of Northern Colorado. They talked about the history and background of Juneteenth and what it says about addressing racial inequality.

Interview Highlights:

These interview highlights have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Beau Baker: Tell me about the origins of Juneteenth and how it evolved to take on new meaning in the modern world.

Dr. Janine Weaver-Douglas: So, a bit of history. Abraham Lincoln decided to write the Emancipation Proclamation for a variety of reasons. He wrote the Emancipation Proclamation to take effect on January 1, 1863. And there were two conditions for it. First, that the Union had to win the Civil War, and if it won the Civil War, then the Emancipation Proclamation would come into effect at the end of the war, but it would only come into effect for those states that were in the Confederation. . And so the Confederacy is what constitutes the American South as we know it today – down to Maryland, down to Texas. Anything not within these states was considered non-Confederate territory and therefore not applicable to the Emancipation Proclamation because they were already “free”.

In 1865, at the end of the war, Union troops essentially toured the American South to inform slaves and plantations that they were now free. On June 19, they arrived at the last plantation, and that was in Galveston, Texas. And so they celebrate Juneteenth as their true day of liberation. And it’s called Liberty Day or Jubilee Day, depending on where you are in the South.

It’s specifically a black South American holiday. So other people can participate and other people can celebrate it, because it is really about liberation. And I think liberation is a universal concept. And I also think a lot of us have different relationships with the idea of ​​liberation and what that means. But it specifically honors the fact that these people persisted as enslaved individuals when they were in fact free. Juneteenth has been celebrated in the South, particularly in Texas, since 1865.

It was first recognized as a federal holiday in 2021, thanks to the hard work of Opal Lee. Opal Lee was a retired schoolteacher and she fought for at least 60 years to have June 19 recognized as a public holiday, and that culminated last year. And that’s why you see a lot of institutions, especially UNC, honoring Juneteenth for the first time this year.

With this federal designation as a holiday, how does this particularly deepen or broaden the meaning of this day and this occasion? And is there a danger of diluting it?

Yes. So federal designation is just legitimacy, right? As I said before, Juneteenth has been celebrated for over 100 years in some parts of the country. And so it has never been dependent on any external recognition to exist. It requires this recognition for legitimate purposes. And so in the same way that our country and our governmental and state organizations recognize July 4 as a day of observance, receiving this federal designation recognizes June 19 as another day of significance.

What it does is it frees up resources so that people celebrating this day can actually enjoy this day. I think the danger — and why I said yes — there’s a lot of opportunity for commercialization and there’s a lot of opportunity for appropriation, and that’s a huge concern. I don’t need Juneteenth themed towels, do I? I need you to leave me alone so I can have this day and celebrate it any way I want. And that’s the problem with American marketing. We will turn anything into money and it can be deeply offensive.

How does it fit into the very present narrative and into a larger narrative of the black experience in the United States?

Juneteenth is relevant in that way to current American experiences, and I would probably say all experiences since Juneteenth – they’re all related because they all exist, because black people aren’t viewed with the same degree of humanity as white people, like any other culture. . And so when you look at the experience, it’s on a large scale, isn’t it? I’m talking broadly – ​​when you look at the general experiences of being Black in America since 1865, it’s been a long negotiation of humanity.

“When you look at the general experiences of being Black in America since 1865, it’s been a long negotiation of humanity.”

I have been fighting to receive my rights piece by piece for 150 years. And then I constantly have to renew these arguments each time my rights are revoked. And Juneteenth, in its quest for legitimization, was a negotiation of rights. I deserve it. You were born a person. If I have to earn my status as a people, I will remember how to do it. It happened, and I’m going to want to talk about it to prevent it from happening to other people.

Is there anything you hope our white listeners consider about this holiday if they’re not directly involved in a celebration?

I think it’s important to note that there’s a whole kind of life where white people aren’t in the middle, they’re not the center, they’re not the focus, they’re not the audience target. They are not the intended recipients. They just exist. And so we can exist in a space and we can have a reality that doesn’t center white people at all. Its good. Right.

The distinction of sort of making the space open to everyone is the intention behind it. And so if your intention behind it is centered around education, you’re educating yourself or educating others. If it comes to advocacy, I understand how to best use my position in my power to open or close doors that create problems or to find spaces and places that can support other people. It’s important, right? If it’s activism on some level, I use that to engage. I use it to build relationships. I want to be in community. I want to understand how I can better ally myself or defend others. It is important for these three intentions. Bring white people into a non-white space and have them share and converse and learn and understand. All of these things can be satisfied.

The need is that when you leave this space, what are you going to do with this information? You know, an important part is understanding how we got here. There’s a reason Juneteenth was needed. For this reason (which most people are not comfortable with) is that there was a period of two and a half years when these plantation owners knew that these people were free and did not have not said. So there is a very relevant example of how one person can harm another person that you can then use to examine your own relationships.

And you can say, okay, how am I controlling information or opportunities? How do I relinquish my responsibility to defend or support? How do I not get out of the way and put people in place to amplify voices that are better and more appropriate than me? How can I not find or search for local talent in my neighborhood or on my campus instead of just attracting people who make me feel comfortable or who look like me or look like me. This stuff comes later.

And so I hope that at a minimum, you take the knowledge that is presented. You take the interaction that was given to you. And you understand why it’s important and you put it into action. If you choose not to, it’s an outreach opportunity at its heart. As long as you don’t harm another person in the pursuit of your own conscience and education, that’s okay.


Suggested reading, viewing and activities for June 16 compiled by the Marcus Garvey Cultural Center: