Clarkston, GA — Juneteenth commemorates the date June 19, 1865, when the last African American slaves held in Confederate states were freed. The holiday has been observed since 1866 and the celebrations are continuing in DeKalb County this year.
The city of Clarkston began the celebration with a webinar on Monday, June 14, which featured a panel moderated by Mayor Beverly Burks to discuss the significance and history of Juneteenth.
President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863, but the immediate impact was small due to Confederate slave owners not being compelled to observe the Union authority, Many African Americans continued to be slaves until Union armies gradually made their way across the South to enforce Lincoln’s order, according to Juneteenth Atlanta.
Some celebrations also happen on Jan. 1.
“That was our enslaved ancestors waiting for, as they say, 12:01 [a.m.] when we would be free,” said Candy Tate, executive of operations of Juneteenth Atlanta. “That was the anticipation in which when we anticipate a new year, they were anticipating a new life. But we know, and even up until present day, that many, many things, some things changed but many things stayed the same.”
On June 19, 1865, the Union army arrived in Galveston, Texas and took possession of the state and read general order number three announcing that all enslaved African Americans in the state were legally free.
Juneteenth was first celebrated in Texas with political rallies that featured voting rights and voter education. Wealthier African Americans purchased land to establish venues for annual celebrations that included live entertainment in the form of music, pageants, parades, and outdoor games, according to Juneteenth Atlanta.
The Rev. Karl Moore, pastor at Clarkston First Baptist Church, said that he was first introduced to Juneteenth about 40 years ago.
“The way I learned about it was we had some relatives who had moved north but moved back south and they had started these celebrations in northern cities, Juneteenth, and they brought it back home,” Moore said.
A flag was also created for Juneteenth that features a white starburst on a red and blue background.
“Really, it was an emblem of inclusiveness. Let them know that even though we’re free, we are Americans because sometimes there’s a big push to go back to Africa,” Moore said. “The flag became a representation of now that I’m free, I’m just as free as other Americans and I’m looking to be included, although they were not, there was an expectation that they would be.”
Other representations of the flag feature the colors red, black and green which is more of an Afro-centric flag, Moore said.
Juneteenth has traditionally been a church-centered celebration, Burks said.
“I think the church has always been sort of an epicenter for the community at large and usually because we were sort of autonomous when it came to the church,” Moore said. “We usually had our own building, had our own ground, so celebrations would take place there because that’s what we had.”
Juneteenth celebrations would be held at churches because at the time Black people didn’t have access to other spaces like public parks.
“We worship at the church until midnight comes to celebrate the Emancipation Proclamation even though many of us were not freed on that because even after the Emancipation Proclamation had been passed, we still had not been freed as slaves until we had the 13th amendment, but we still celebrate,” Moore said.
Civil rights organizations have also played a part in the celebrations as festivities died down during the Jim Crow era and started again during the Civil Rights Movement, Burks said.
DeKalb NAACP President Teresa Hardy said it is key that the Black community be truly educated about history and politics.
It took 244 years for a policy to be made regarding slavery and policy is needed in order for change to happen, she said.
“I bring that up because we are still fighting the same things that the Civil Rights era brought out — civil rights, women’s rights, voting rights — we’re still fighting [for] the same rights,” Hardy said. “Black people, we are here, but our role here is the fact that we built the country. I think we need to literally go there and understand that we too were the ones that made the change to make this country what it is today.”
Juneteenth is a reminder that the Black community still has a long way to go, Moore said.
“We’re celebrating, but yet we have not gotten the bigger picture yet, I believe. Until we become economically free, freedom don’t come. We’re still enslaved to the job. We’re still enslaved to the system,” he said.
Juneteenth has been around for years, but it seems there is more momentum around the holiday this year. Hardy thinks the biggest push has been the Black Lives Matter movement.
“That was police reform but because the word ‘Black’ is in it, the lives of our people were being destroyed, people have taken BLM to a whole another level,” Hardy said.
She added that it makes sense for DeKalb County to celebrate when most of its residents are Black.
Juneteenth is also a great way to energize people, Burks said.
“This is our opportunity to make sure that we do the things in terms of inclusion of our community, letting our community, our African American community know we hear you, we see you, we celebrate you,” Burks said.
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