Home National news Juneteenth is now a national and Nashville holiday

Juneteenth is now a national and Nashville holiday

by Cass Teague
Emancipation Day Celebration band, June 19, 1900 (courtesy The Portal to Texas History, University of North Texas Libraries).

Juneteenth (officially Juneteenth National Independence Day and also known as Jubilee Day, Emancipation Day, Freedom Day, and Black Independence Day) is a federal holiday in the United States commemorating the emancipation of enslaved black Americans, also celebrating African-American culture. Originating in Galveston, Texas, it has been celebrated annually on June 19 in various parts of the United States since 1865.

The day was recognized as a federal holiday on June 17, 2021, when President Joe Biden signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act into law. Juneteenth will be a formal holiday for all Metro Nashville employees starting this year, formally observed on Monday, June 20 this year, with Metro Nashville public libraries closed Sunday and Monday in observance of Juneteenth.

Juneteenth’s commemoration is on the anniversary date of the June 19, 1865, announcement of General Order No. 3 by Union Army General Gordon Granger, proclaiming freedom for enslaved people in Texas, which was the last state of the Confederacy with institutional slavery.

President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, issued on January 1, 1863, had freed the enslaved people in Texas and all the other Southern secessionist states of the Confederacy except for parts of states not in rebellion. Enforcement of the Proclamation generally relied upon the advance of Union troops. Texas, as the most remote state of the former Confederacy, had seen an expansion of slavery and had a low presence of Union troops as the American Civil War ended; thus, enforcement there had been slow and inconsistent prior to Granger’s announcement.

Although the Emancipation Proclamation declared an end to slavery in the Confederate States, it did not end slavery in states that remained in the Union. For a short while after the fall of the Confederacy, slavery remained legal in two of the Union border states – Delaware and Kentucky. Those enslaved people were freed with the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which abolished chattel slavery nationwide on December 6, 1865. The last enslaved people present in the continental United States were freed when the enslaved people held in the Indian Territories that had sided with the Confederacy were released, namely the Choctaw, in 1866.

Celebrations date to 1866, at first involving church-centered community gatherings in Texas. They spread across the South and became more commercialized in the 1920s and 1930s, often centering on a food festival. Participants in the Great Migration out of the South carried their celebrations to other parts of the country.

During the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, these celebrations were eclipsed by the nonviolent determination to achieve civil rights but grew in popularity again in the 1970s with a focus on African American freedom and African-American arts. Beginning with Texas by proclamation in 1938, and by legislation in 1979, each U.S. state and the District of Columbia have formally recognized the holiday in some way. With its adoption in certain parts of Mexico, the holiday became an international holiday. Juneteenth is celebrated by the Mascogos, descendants of Black Seminoles who escaped from slavery in 1852 and settled in Coahuila, Mexico.

Tennessee State Museum celebrates Juneteenth

Museum artist in residence Donielle Pankey with the community art project.

The Tennessee State Museum held its Juneteenth celebration in partnership with the World AfriCultural Community Project on June 11. The event started with an opening ceremony by United States Colored Troops (USCT) re-enactors.

The Museum’s Tenn. Writers | Tenn. Stories series also launched that morning with author Leigh Ann Gardner discussing her book To Care for the Sick and Bury the Dead: African American Lodges and Cemeteries in Tennessee in discussion with Natalie Bell.

 ‘The Fort Negley Descendants Project: Nashville’s Black Civil War Legacy’ was presented in the Digital Learning Center, and moderated by Dr. Angela Sutton of Vanderbilt University. The discussion centered on what Fort Negley means for the descendants of those that fought for and labored to build the fort, as well as what the future of Fort Negley means to Nashville and the Black community. The Fort Negley discussion included descendants Gary Burke and Jeneene Blackman.

There were performances of poetry, music and dance in the Museum’s Grand Hall, along with a community art project and demonstration by artist in residence Donielle Pankey.

Pankey’s painting depicts silhouettes of people walking around, with the word Freedom painted broadly across the canvas. The African American flag is depicted in the upper right corner. 

Pankey said that she wanted it to resemble the Black Lives Matter mural painted on Woodland Street.

 “The silhouettes of people are walking around as if it’s their everyday life now, she said. “I did the African American flag instead of the American flag so that we can recognize African American culture.”

Visitors finished the day by interacting with living history interpreters in the galleries, including an appearance by guest Dr. Gloria McKissack, civil rights activist and Freedom Rider.

A recording of the Fort Negley Descendants Project presentation is available for viewing on the museum’s website at <tnmuseum.org/videos>.

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