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What is Juneteenth and what does Lincoln have to do with it? A historian explains it all

State Journal Register

Monday, June 20, 2022  |  Article  |  Tiffani Jackson

When 76-year-old Mary Clay and her family moved to Springfield from Memphis in the 1970s, she was surprised to learn about a celebration for the freedom of Black people.

Families were less connected in the South and racism toward African Americans was prevalent, Clay said. So an event like Juneteenth was news. 

“It wasn't recognized in my neck of the woods and there wasn’t a lot of coming together,” said Clay, of Clay's Popeye's BBQ on Springfield's east side. “It was the South so no one pushed it but when we got to Springfield that’s when it all began.”

Christina Shutt, executive director of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, said Clay’s experience wasn’t surprising and that most people forget that Juneteenth is uniquely a Galveston, Texas holiday. She said it only picked up in areas where former slaves settled after the June 19 liberating event in 1865.

On June 19, 1865, Union Gen. Gordon Granger and more than 2,000 soldiers arrived in downtown Galveston, where they told slaves about the Emancipation Proclamation.  The news was life-changing. . 

"Texas was the last holdout of the Confederacy of insurgent forces so many slave owners (from other southern states) actually fled there as the Union army began to come in," Shutt said. "One of the things the Emancipation Proclamation did was transform the U.S. Army into this freedom-carrying force, so as they came into the deep South bringing freedom, it took them a long time to get into Texas to enforce what had already been signed."

The Emancipation Proclamation did not change the status of enslaved people in border states such as Kentucky and Maryland. Slavery wasn't abolished until the 13th Amendment, which didn't take effect until it was ratified by the states on Dec. 6, 1865, more than six months after Lincoln’s death.

Shutt said as people left Galveston they traveled to northern cities and took their traditions with them. It wasn't until years later that the popularity of Juneteenth celebrations began.

"People were trying to find their families that had been torn apart by slavery. They put ads in newspapers and used the Juneteenth holiday as an opportunity to gather and find family members who had been sold." 

Shutt said in many ways family reunions are the roots of Juneteenth celebrations because of its interconnected nature. Over time Juneteenth grew into a large-scale family event for the entire community. 

But before Juneteenth gained popularity throughout the country, Shutt said for many decades emancipation was celebrated on multiple days. She said only in recent times has Juneteenth emerged as the leading holiday. At one point some cities, including Springfield, celebrated on Sept. 22 in recognition of the day Lincoln issued his preliminary version of the Emancipation Proclamation. Others celebrated on Jan. 1, the day it went into effect, as Emancipation Day. 

"Just because it wasn’t called Juneteenth here doesn’t mean people weren't still celebrating the same type of event. They were celebrating the proclamation that enslaved people were free but also the 13th Amendment, which Lincoln had his hand in, and is what ultimately freed all enslaved people," Shutt said. "So people were always celebrating but they were less focused on what it was called and more focused on what they were doing in the act of the celebration." 

Though Black people were free after 1865, many still struggled for equality because Jim Crow laws, Black codes and segregation were on the rise. It wasn't until after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. that Juneteenth celebrations became more recognized.

"MLK did a march on Washington and had planned to do another one, the poor people march for jobs in 1968, but he was assassinated that year. Because numbers were falling short, organizers cut the celebration shorter than what they initially planned and ended the day on June 19, knowing it was the end of Juneteenth," she said. "So around the late 60s, early 70s, Juneteenth took off again and began to increase in popularity." 

Clay participated in the Memphis march and said the freedom Black people have today is what she and so many others fought for. Witnessing Juneteenth become a federal holiday last year made her proud.

"It's important for young people to feel recognized and know that they’re important and it's good that now we get recognition," Clay said. "People are standing by us and it's even more exciting because it's a federal holiday, so It feels good to be celebrated."

Clay also said she's happy to see how Juneteenth has evolved from being celebrated by mostly Black people and how speaking out on issues through allyship has played a role in the success. 

"When you see those marches and events, you see a lot of white people right beside the Black people supporting and you see them crying out loud," Clay said. "They’ve influenced a lot of efforts that help push the Black community forward and I'm happy to see people are standing by us now."