Politics

Public Spaces, Hidden Faces:
Juneteenth and Black Citizenship in America Today

Juneteenth is a significant holiday for the United States as it honors the day everyone was liberated from slavery. Until now, however, it has largely been celebrated by Black Americans. The mass global protests over George Floyd’s murder have reignited the call to recognize June 19th as a nationwide public holiday to mark the offical emancipation of African Americans from slavery, a call rooted in the larger movement for racial justice and reconciliation in America. More American companies such as Nike, Target, and Twitter are joining a growing list to make Juneteenth a paid company holiday. And just this week, the state of New York issued an Executive Order recognizing Juneteenth as a holiday for state employees. As the movement grows, it’s important to understand the history of Juneteenth and what it has meant for Black Americans to celebrate freely and safely in public space as that has not always been the case.

Despite President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, slave owners in the American South refused to free their slaves until Robert E. Lee was defeated by the Union two years later in 1865. Even so, many of the enslaved were already well aware that their emancipation was on the horizon. On June 19, 1865, the enslaved people of Galveston, Texas were officially granted their freedom when Union army general Gordon Granger announced both the end of slavery and the Civil War with General Order 3. The Order read:

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 personal rights and rights of property, between former masters and slaves and the connection heretofore existing between them, becomes that between employer and hired labor.

With Granger’s official declaration on June 19th, the date was celebrated by the emancipated people of Galveston as Jubilee Day, and later termed Juneteenth in the 1890s.

While January 1st has sometimes been celebrated as an Emancipation Day in the United States, Juneteenth is particularly special because it celebrates the day in which all of the enslaved in America were legally considered free. Regardless of their newly emancipated status, however, many of the emancipated had knowledge of their freedom hidden from them by slave owners, some freed people were taken by the Confederate mayor and held captive in jail, and those who gathered in public spaces were often forced into military service. Much of this violence occurred in the months following the announcement of General Order 3, prompting the very first Juneteenth celebration to occur in 1866.

Celebrations for Juneteenth featured a number of activities and amenities. People took to the streets and rejoiced in their newfound freedom with fireworks, barbecues, parades, speeches, dances, sports and more. However, anxieties about shifting racial hierarchies pushed many White Americans to limit the opportunities for Black Americans to host, and participate in, Juneteenth celebrations occurring in public spaces. Situated within public spaces, the emancipated were able to define themselves as a part of the nation’s public, a definition that could not exist simultaneously with white supremacy. As a result, members of the Black community were often brutalized on public transportation while heading to Juneteenth celebrations. Legislation and labor contracts designed to support white landowners prohibited freed people from communing together in rural areas or entering the city to celebrate holidays with the rest of the public without their employer’s consent. Similarly, some celebrations were banned from being hosted in public spaces, inspiring members of the Black community to purchase private land for Juneteenth festivities. 

It is my hope that as Americans we will continue to fight for the human rights of each other in all spaces, public or private, and, like the people of Galveston, Texas, agree to celebrate only when every last one of us is free. 

Though some progress has been made, public space is still being weaponized against Black people today. In the wake of coronavirus, this weaponization has been carried out with great tenacity. Large groups that gathered for Memorial Day celebrations in various parts of the nation including Missouri, Texas, California, and this month in New York, failed to garner responses from law enforcement for their occupation of public space while defying social distancing guidelines. Yet,  the response of law enforcement to the Black community in public spaces has been unabashedly aggressive. Black people accounted for 193 of the 374 social distancing-related summonses distributed by the NYPD from March 16 to May 5. And, 68% of the 120 social distancing-related arrests made by the NYPD were Black people. In Hamilton county in Ohio, Black people represent 29% of the population, but account for 79% of the people charged with stay at home violations as of this May. Alexander Glover, a homeless man, was arrested by Orlando, Florida police for failing to follow the county’s stay at home order this March. Today, pandemic or otherwise, it is still legal for Black trans women to be profiled by law enforcement officers when inhabiting public spaces.  

Criminalizing the existence of Black people in, and limiting their access to, public space, has allowed law enforcement and the state to impose second class citizenship on Black communities across America. Today, as Black people throughout the country are two times more likely to die of COVID-19 than other groups and continue to die at the hands of the police, we must understand the treatment of Black people in public spaces as an extension of an ideology regarding Black American citizenship. Much like the responses to the early Juneteenth celebrations, the suppression and dispersal of Black Americans from public spaces is reflective of a fervent anti-blackness pervading this nation.

Throughout the month of June and beyond, it is my hope that as Americans we will continue to fight for the human rights of each other in all spaces, public or private, and, like the people of Galveston, Texas, agree to celebrate only when every last one of us is free. 

 

Further Viewing & Reading

  1. A conversation about Juneteenth and black chefs in America
  2. Celebrating Juneteenth in the age of COVID-19
  3. The activism behind the movement to make Juneteenth a national holiday
  4. A curated selection of black classical composers airing on Classical MPR for Juneteenth
  5. A spotlight on Adrian Lipscomb and the 40 Acres and a Mule Project, a black food justice initiative she hopes to fund by Juneteenth.

 

 

Kimiyo Bremer is an artist and scholar based in New York City. She was Bard College’s 2017 Jonathan Weiss Scholar and is the co-writer of Color Coded. Bremer received her B.A. in Theater and Performance from Bard College in 2018 and received her M.A. in Arts Politics from New York University in 2020. She currently develops museum programming at Poster House. 

 

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  • Mac Smith-McIntire June 20, 2020 at 12:10 am

    My grandma is from Galveston and I sent her this article. She does not remember learning about the freed people as a white highschooler in the 60s. I am grateful for this article causing us to have a very productive conversation about how important it is to continue learning and unlearning. Thank you women’s voices team for this free educaton!!!

    Reply
  • Madison Grubb June 19, 2020 at 1:10 am

    Wow. Great piece. I had never heard of Alexander Glover before reading here… I have to ask… how do you comply with “safer at home” orders when you have no home, when your white country and countrymen treat you as a subhuman?

    Reply