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What is Juneteenth?

And why is it important to our church?

On June 19, 1865, the announcement was made that tens of thousands of African-Americans in Texas had been emancipated, closing the door on one of the last chapters of slavery in the United States. Juneteenth is the oldest nationally celebrated commemoration of the ending of slavery in this country. Dating back to 1865, it was on June 19th that the Union soldiers, led by Major General Gordon Granger, landed at Galveston, Texas with news that the Civil War had ended and that the enslaved were now free. Note that this was two and a half years after President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863 that freed slaves in Confederate states. The Emancipation Proclamation had little impact on Texans due to the minimal number of Union troops to enforce the new Executive Order. However, since that proclamation was made during the Civil War, it was ignored by Confederate states and it wasn’t until the end of the war that the order was enforced in the South.

With the surrender of General Lee in April of 1865, and the arrival of General Granger’s regiment, the forces were finally strong enough to influence and overcome the resistance.

Granger delivered the news himself, “The people of Texas are informed that in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and free laborer.”

The day’s name is a combination of “June” and “nineteenth” in honor of the date of Granger’s announcement and first appeared around 1903. It is also known as African American Freedom Day or Emancipation Day.

The day was celebrated occasionally until it was revived during the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Juneteenth is recognized as a state holiday or special day of observance in 45 states, and this month was officially deemed a federal holiday by President Biden.

How is Juneteenth Celebrated?

Juneteenth has become a popular time for family reunions and gatherings. As with most social events, food takes center stage. Juneteenth is often commemorated by barbecues and the traditional drink – strawberry soda – and dessert – strawberry pie. Other red foods such as red rice (rice with tomatoes), watermelon, and red velvet cake are also popular. The red foods commemorate the blood that was spilled during the days of slavery.

Churches, including Presbyterian bodies of faith, and communities across the country now join in Juneteenth celebrations with picnics, re-enactments, and special services, many of which feature traditional African American music and hymns, games and learning opportunities.

Click here for more information on how Presbyterian Churches are joining in Juneteenth celebrations.

-Article contributed by Bev Jewusiak, Matthew 25 Task Force


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