Earlier this year, the Maryland General Assembly passed a bill designating every June 19 as Juneteenth National Freedom Day, commemorating the end of slavery in the United States. Forty-two other states have passed similar measures, thanks largely to advocates like Dr. Ronald Myers, a family practitioner and ordained Baptist minister from Biloxi, Mississippi, who founded the National Juneteenth Observation Foundation.
Myers talked with Washingtonian about the meaning of Juneteenth, the origins of its peculiar name, and efforts to grow the holiday at state and national levels.
What is the history behind Juneteenth?
Juneteenth is a celebration of freedom. Texas was the last state to be in rebellion at the end of the Civil War. On June 19, 1865, Union General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston to make that announcement that all slaves were free. Our ancestors heard the news and celebrated and that became the first Juneteenth celebration and we’ve been celebrating it ever since.
What does Juneteenth mean to people who celebrate it today?
Remember Frederick Douglass’s speech in Rochester, New York, the Fourth of July in 1852. He was a fugitive slave, and he said, “The Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.” Fourth of July has never been a day that we as African-Americans have celebrated our freedom, because we were trapped in slavery. In America we haven’t dealt with our slave legacy. Juneteenth gives an opportunity to constructively confront that legacy with a celebration of freedom.
Why “Juneteenth” rather than the “19th of June”?
Well, the old-timers still say, “19th of June.” In fact, if you want to get hit upside the head with a walker, you go talking to some old folks in Texas about “Juneteenth.” But basically Juneteenth is a just shortening of the 19th of June.
Has it been hard to get legislators or the public on board with the idea?
These days it’s gotten easier. Texas became the first state to pass legislation to recognize Juneteenth as a state holiday in 1980. Now, 43 states and the District of Columbia recognize Juneteenth, too.
In Maryland, we basically had to say, “This is the state where Frederick Douglass was born, and we’ve got 42 states that do this already.” Folks in Maryland realize their uniqueness as a former slave state and as the home state of Frederick Douglass. You have to find a lawmaker to sponsor a bill and then you have to go through the headache of getting everybody on board. But that’s not that hard to do nowadays.
How do people celebrate Juneteenth?
We have music, barbecue, all sorts of activities, African dance, and Juneteenth flag-raising ceremonies. There is a special Juneteenth flag, and at the flag-raising ceremonies we raise a US flag with the national anthem, and then we raise a Juneteenth flag with “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” Then we have a reading of the Emancipation Proclamation in full. This year there is a wreath-laying ceremony at the Lincoln Emancipation Memorial in Capitol Hill, and we’re hosting a breakfast at the National Press Club the morning of the 19th.
Have you made any progress with federal legislation?
We want it be a day of national observance. Kay Bailey Hutchison introduced a bill for Juneteenth Independence Day to the Senate in 2012, but it didn’t get out of committee. A lot of folks in Congress from both parties have acknowledged the significance of Juneteenth with various resolutions, but we’re going to try to get that bill reintroduced.