FOR BLACK AMERICANS, transformational change has always been on the horizon, just out of reach. After President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, it took effect Jan. 1, 1863. It would be another two-and-a-half years, however, before Union troops arrived in Galveston, Texas, enslaved African Americans learned the Civil War was over (it ended in April 1965), and Major General Gordon Granger issued an order that led to their freedom. For generations since, beginning in Texas and expanding nationwide, African Americans have marked June 19 with a celebration of food, family, history, and culture known as Juneteenth, Emancipation Day, or Jubilee Day.

Museums across the country have planned programming around Juneteenth this week. The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) has a rich menu of virtual talks and online resources devoted to Juneteenth. Kevin Young, the Washington, D.C., museum’s new executive director calls Juneteenth a “celebration of resilience” and an “expectation of freedom deferred but found.”

 


Kevin Young, executive director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture notes the historic significance of Juneteenth and introduces the museum’s special programming. | Video by NMAAHC

 

NMAAHC’s website answers the questions “What is Juneteenth” and “Why is Juneteenth important?” The museum’s special virtual programming features a panel of scholars including Young, Columbia University journalism professor Jelani Cobb, and Annette Gordon-Reed, author of the recently published volume “On Juneteenth,” discussing the origins and contemporary significance of Juneteenth.

There is storytelling, musical performances, and a genealogy presentation demonstrating the wealth of information available in archival records. Young is also in conversation with food historian Adrian Miller, author of the new book “Black Smoke: African Americans And The United States Of Barbecue.”

AT THE SCHOMBURG CENTER for Research in Black Culture in Harlem, the annual Schomburg Literary Festival is underway. The six-day virtual event concludes June 19. The Juneteenth schedule is described as “an incredible line up of authors from across the globe, whose works of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry celebrate and interrogate the sweet refrain of freedom’s song in our everyday lives.”

The Schomburg recently announced Joy Bivins, the center’s associate director of Collections and Research Services will assume the role of executive director effective June 21. (She is succeeding Young, who headed the Schomburg before joining the Smithsonian in January.) Bivins is in conversation with Honorée Fanonne Jeffers, poet, novelist, and author of “The Age of Phillis” and “The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois.”

Clint Smith is in dialogue with Andrea Roberts about his insightful new book, “How the Word is Passed: A Reckoning With the History of Slavery Across America.” Smith toured monuments, landmarks, and plantations, including Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, Louisiana’s Angola Prison, and a cemetery dedicated to Confederate soldiers, to draw out the ways in which slavery has shaped the nation and its people.

 


Carte-de-visite of an emancipation watch night meeting. Waiting for the Hour, 1863. | Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

 

Yaba Blay is discussing “One Drop: Shifting the Lens on Race,” which features 60 contributors, with Courtney R. Baker. Ben Okri, author of the short story collection “Prayer for the Living,” is in conversation with Chris Abani. Books dedicated Harlem writers, Black performance, and restoring voting rights to citizens returning to Florida after incarceration, among other topics, are also explored.

TAKING INSPIRATION FROM “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” 10 Black museums are collaborating with blkfreedom.org to celebrate Juneteenth. The 1.5-hour presentation features a mix of remarks, poetry, music, dance, and more. Museum leaders and Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden make appearances. Local elected officials are also featured.

Each institution contributed programming inspired by a theme from the Black national anthem, including victory, liberty, pride, resilience, and joy. The following museums are participating:

It’s unfortunate the collective of nationwide institutions doesn’t include at least one Texas museum. Among those that are involved, the California African American Museum in Los Angeles is weighing in on resilience, what it means in face of the COVID-19 pandemic and growing calls to join the fight for freedom and justice. Dr. Robert “Bert” Davis, president and CEO of America’s Black Holocaust Museum in Milwaukee, Wisc., hosts a virtual tour of the institution and sheds light on how Juneteenth is celebrated in the city. In addition, actor Roger Guinevere Smith offers wisdom on behalf of the August Wilson African American Cultural Center in Pittsburgh.

In Seattle, the Northwest African American Museum (NAAM) established a new African American Cultural Ensemble. The museum describes the group as the first Black choir launched by a Black museum. Juneteenth marks the gospel and soul ensemble’s inaugural concert performance.

 


A collective of 10 Black museums came together to produce a dynamic, virtual Juneteenth program this year. | Video by Historic Mitchelville Freedom Park

 

NAAM PLAYED A ROLE in Washington’s designation of Juneteenth as a state holiday, effective in 2022. It’s among a handful of states observing the historic event as a paid holiday. Texas became the first state to recognize Juneteenth in 1980. Today, 47 states and the District of Columbia celebrate the occasion.

Beyond the African American community, broad awareness of Juneteenth has historically been limited. The steady growth of the Black Lives Matter movement, swell of racial justice protests in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, and racial division sowed by the previous Presidential administration revived and amplified interest in Juneteenth and galvanized Congressional legislation first introduced in 1996 to designate Juneteenth a federal holiday.

In 2016, Opal Lee began walking from her home in Fort Worth, Texas, to Washington, D.C., to garner support for making Juneteenth a national holiday. She was 89 at the time. This week, the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act passed the Senate and the House. Rep. Shiela Jackson-Lee (D-Texas) was the lead sponsor of the legislation.

President Joe Biden signed the bill into law on June 17, flanked by Jackson-Lee and Lee, now 94, with Vice President Kamala Harris holding her hand throughout the ceremony. Juneteenth is now an official federal holiday, the first one added to the calendar since Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 1983.

American history writ large has often ignored or erased key narratives of the Black experience that thread the nation’s foundational remit of structural inequality. With Juneteenth established as a national holiday, the celebration of freedom has newfound visibility. CT

 

FIND MORE Writing in the New York Times, Kevin Young asks “Juneteenth is a National Now. Can it Still be Black?”

 

BOOKSHELF
Harvard historian Annette Gordon-Reed is the author of the recently published volume “On Juneteenth.” Mitch Kachun’s “Festivals of Freedom: Memory and Meaning in African American Emancipation Celebrations, 1808-1915” addresses the fact that there are multiple emancipation days celebrated in various states. “How the Word is Passed: A Reckoning With the History of Slavery Across America” by Clint Smith chronicles his experiences touring plantations, Confederate monuments and landmarks, drawing out the ways in which slavery has shaped the nation and its people. For children, there is “All Different Now: Juneteenth, the First Day of Freedom” and “Juneteenth for Mazie,” among others. Also consider “Juneteenth: A Novel,” the posthumous book by Ralph Ellison, brought forth by his literary executor John F. Callahan.

 

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