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Danya Hajjaji

Celebrating Juneteenth in the age of Black Lives Matter

US activists have pushed to make Juneteenth a national holiday. [Getty]

Date of publication: 19 June, 2020

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Juneteenth, an annual celebration commemorating a 19th century proclamation that freed slaves in Texas, comes with deep significance amid this year's Black Lives Matter protests.

The Black Lives Matter protest movement, which was re-energised following last month's killing of George Floyd by a police officer in Minnesota, has given rise to lively debates, glimmers of accountability and stark reminders of America's fraught racial history.

The widespread demonstrations have ushered a painful reckoning with America's past. The movement has so far yielded tangible results, from the removal of statues perceived as racist symbols to Nascar banning the Confederate flag at its events.

Most recently, New York and Virginia declared Juneteenth - which falls on Friday this year - a state holiday. However, they have joined only two other states in doing so.

A number of companies - including Nike, Twitter, Spotify and Uber - have made Juneteenth a corporate holiday for their employees.

Juneteenth, a portmanteau of "June" and "nineteenth", is an annual celebration to commemorate 19 June, 1865, the day enslaved men and women in Texas found out they were freed in the aftermath of the American Civil War.

The civil war, which began in April 1861 under President Abraham Lincoln, saw a deadly conflict between the United States - then known as "the Union" - and seven southern states that seceded from the US, which proclaimed themselves as "the Confederacy". The economies of Confederate states were heavily reliant on Black slave labour, a system they sought to defend during the war.

Juneteenth is an annual celebration to commemorate 19 June, 1865, the day enslaved men and women in Texas found out they were freed in the aftermath of the American Civil War

The Confederacy ended up collapsing with a series of surrenders starting in April 1865. On 19 June that year, a Union general read out a presidential proclamation in Galveston - a port city in formerly Confederate Texas - announcing the freedom of over three million slaves in Confederate states.

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President Lincoln had signed the document in 1863, but the news took nearly two and a half years to reach the thousands of African-American slaves in Texas. Slavery was abolished nationwide months later on 6 December, 1865, when the 13th Amendment of the US Constitution was ratified.

The earliest Juneteenth celebrations took place in Texas, where the initial proclamation was announced. In 1872, Black leaders raised funds to purchase land in the city of Houston, which would serve as a permanent site for Juneteenth festivities. Today, the land is known as Emancipation Park.

Texas was the first US state to declare Juneteenth a state holiday in 1980. New Hampshire designated Juneteenth a holiday last year. In light of current events, New York and Virginia followed suit this month. Though 43 other states and the District of Columbia either recognise or commemorate Juneteenth, it is still not a national holiday.

Efforts to make Juneteenth a nationwide holiday have nevertheless persisted. Every 19 June since 2016, activist Opal Lee, 93, has gone on an annual four kilometre walk from her hometown of Fort Worth, Texas to Washington, DC to campaign for the cause. On Monday, Texas Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee introduced a bill to make Juneteenth a federal holiday.

The Black Lives Matter protest movement has given rise to lively debates, glimmers of accountability and stark reminders of America's fraught racial history

Juneteenth is normally observed by African-American communities at local levels, with events such as family reunions, barbecues and parades. Descendants of slaves have also performed Juneteenth pilgrimages to Galveston, as their freed ancestors have before them.

This year, Juneteenth comes as centuries of violence against Black Americans are laid bare. Last month, George Floyd died under the knee of a police officer in Minnesota. In March, Breonna Taylor was killed by policemen who raided her Kentucky home for drugs that were not found. In Georgia, Ahmaud Arbery was shot dead while jogging after being confronted by a pair of armed white men, one of whom allegedly uttered a racial slur while standing over his body.

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On Sunday, Rayshard Brooks was killed while running away from police officers after he failed a sobriety test.

In addition to the pattern of killings, Black Americans have also been disproportionately affected by the Covid-19 pandemic - both in terms of death tolls and economic fallouts.

Mass protests across the US have demanded justice, divestment from policing and effective steps to combat systemic racism.

Tensions have further mounted over US President Donald Trump's upcoming campaign rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, his first since the coronavirus lockdowns. The rally was originally slated for 19 June, then moved to 20 June following a backlash.

The decision to hold the event in Tulsa - where one of the country's worst race massacres took place in 1921 - amid heightened racial tensions was not lost on critics.

As more Black Lives Matter protests are expected on Friday, the symbolism of Juneteenth's history, essence and struggle is set to take centre stage in this unfolding chapter of US history.

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