A couple of days a week I take the train to work, and this past week, my commute was vastly improved by Annette Gordon-Reed’s excellent On Juneteenth. The title is a bit deceptive in that it is more of a memoir about growing up Black in Texas, a state with an idealized past that overlays the truer, richer, and more tortuous one she recounts. For those seeking to learn more about Juneteenth itself, it is the sixth and final eponymous essay that takes the day on directly, but I suggest reading the five leading up to it in order to fully appreciate the day’s significance to the author, Texas, Black America, and, as our newest federal holiday, all Americans. Unlike most of the Juneteenth “origin stories” you can read everywhere online, Gordon-Reed walks her readers from the event that created the holiday through its evolution and growing significance in American history, including her own childhood.
This month, Juneteenth celebrates its first anniversary of being named a federal holiday. It has long been celebrated as a state holiday in Texas, albeit only officially since 1980. Many Texans, both Black and White, share fond memories of the day’s significance: barbecues, fireworks, parades, and start-of-summer gatherings. The origins of Juneteenth trace back to June 19, 1865, when the last enslaved Americans in Galveston, Texas, received word of their freedom, almost two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation. Between the slower traveling pace of news in the 19th century and defiant Confederates, the Civil War and slavery lingered on in Texas past Lee’s surrender at Appomatox in April, the “official” end of the war. The symbolism of that day addressed the 1852 lament of Frederick Douglass: “What, to the Slave, Is the Fourth of July?” That promise was only fulfilled by Juneteenth nearly one hundred years later. In celebrating Juneteenth, we celebrate freedom for all Americans through the end of slavery, while acknowledging the hard work of racial reconciliation that still remains.
Prior to Juneteenth, the most recent federal holiday created was Martin Luther King Jr. Day, in 1983. As with that holiday, Juneteenth’s promotion to a federal holiday was not unanimously passed by Congress. The arguments against it, that another holiday where federal employees were paid not to work was a waste of taxpayer money, were not new and provided a smokescreen for racist reasoning (for more background on this, I recommend this episode of the podcast, “Now and Then”).
So why Juneteenth now? Clearly, the murder of George Floyd in May 2020 refocused attention on racial disparity in the United States. It was not an isolated incident but anecdotal evidence, repeated again and again through history, of a systematic injustice still far from resolved. One hundred years more would pass between Juneteenth and the civil rights movements of the 1960s, marred by ongoing racial divisions. Even fifty years after Jim Crow’s supposed demise, true equality in American society remains elusive. Adopting Juneteenth as a federal holiday both acknowledges the progress that has been made and the work that remains for the entire nation, as author Jemar Tisby argues near the end of his book The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism.
A search of Atla Religion Database® doesn’t divulge much on Juneteenth. Even stretching the search out to seek out any instance of “Juneteenth” in the text of the articles yielded a bare 28 results, many of which were more about Ralph Ellison’s unfinished second novel (completed and released in 1999, and again with another title in 2010).
In such cases where the scholarly literature is sparse, one must seek out what various denominations and faiths are doing to honor and explore the themes of Juneteenth. Across the Protestant denominations, there are various resources to help apply Juneteenth to the norms and rituals of each group. The National Juneteenth Christian Leadership Council appears to have vanished back around 2017, but they did leave behind an essay by Charles Taylor that describes the place of Juneteenth in the history of the Black Church. Through the Disciples Home Missions, the Disciples of Christ compiled one of the earliest and most cited references on Juneteenth. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has also prepared a guide for observing Juneteenth and provided a reflection for youth. The United Churches of Christ, Presbyterian (USA), and United Methodist churches have also released statements and developed programs that address racism.
In the Roman Catholic Church, the National Black Catholic Seminarians Association released a statement last Juneteenth commemorating their 51st anniversary, and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops retweeted a statement from Bishop John Stowe and directed Catholics to read their 2018 pastoral letter Wide Open Our Hearts.
The themes evoked by Juneteenth reach beyond Christianity as well. Articles from Buddhist and Jewish information sources draw connections between freedom and the symbolism of Shabbat as well as the power of nonviolence and peaceful protest in the face of deep grief and rage experienced in the Black community.
The Diocese of California, my home diocese, has taken the lead in bringing Juneteenth into the traditions of the Episcopal Church. In 2020, they passed a resolution on Juneteenth urging the state of California to adopt the holiday and charging the diocese with developing programs for the day including a Juneteenth liturgy and to push for its inclusion among the church’s Lesser Feasts and Fasts. By the first Juneteenth following passage of the resolution, Episcopal churches throughout the country were following the diocese’s lead in its formal recognition.
Hopefully, with continued dialogue and engagement from these programs, the scholarship will follow these various statements, resources, and programs. For those seeking recent book-length treatments of the complicated history of race and church, Jemar Tisby’s The Color of Compromise and How to Fight Racism both offer excellent starting places.
Like many new federal holidays, “best practices” for how to celebrate are still developing as organizations of all stripes consider ways to appropriately honor the day. Some of these didn’t go over well. Washington and Sanders, in their Harvard Business Review article “How Your Organization Can Recognize Juneteenth” argue that it should take the form of service, conversation, and education: a “day on” rather than a “day off.” In particular, they stress the inclusivity of the day by honoring intersectionality. The day falls during Pride Month, for example, and the experiences of the Black American community can be applied to many other historically marginalized groups. For those seeking a true national celebration, the Juneteenth Foundation is happy to provide the opportunity to do so. For more ways to meaningfully celebrate the day, the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation provides numerous resources, including a 40-page Directors and Planners Handbook detailing the composition and handling of the Juneteenth flag.
It is also a day to demand more progress. This progress can stretch into many other areas where we can hold our governments more accountable. For example, in 2010, a National Catholic Reporter article looked at a protest against nuclear weapons held in Kansas City on Juneteenth. The themes of liberation and freedom resonate across a wide range of issues, and Juneteenth gives all of us the opportunity to honor the past struggle while identifying where in our own lives that freedom may still be forthcoming.
For further reading:
- Davis, Joe. “Juneteenth: We Will Breathe.” ELCA Youth Gathering Blog. June 19, 2020. https://blogs.elca.org/youthgathering/juneteenth-we-will-breathe/
- Disciples Home Missions. “Juneteenth Resources.” Discipleshomemissions.org. June 2017. https://www.discipleshomemissions.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/2017-Juneteenth.pdf
- Douglass, Frederick. “What, to the Slave, is the Fourth of July.” BlackPast. January 24, 2017. https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/speeches-african-american-history/1852-frederick-douglass-what-slave-fourth-july/
- Ellison, Ralph. Juneteenth: A Novel. New York: Random House, 1999.
- (The Ellison connection is not completely irrelevant to Juneteenth research. For those who haven’t read the book, this article from the New Yorker explains that a religious revival held around Juneteenth is the pivotal moment in the character development of the antagonist. As detailed above, religious observances and festivals associated with Juneteenth are not uncommon and liturgies have been developed around the day.)
- Episcopal Diocese of California. “Certified Resolutions, Actions, and Election Results of
The 171st Convention of the Diocese of California” Diocal.org. October 17, 2020. https://diocal.org/sites/default/files/171st_Certified_Resolutions_Actions_Elections_2020.pdf
- Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. “Worship Resources: Juneteenth.” ELCA.org. 2019. https://download.elca.org/ELCA%20Resource%20Repository/Juneteenth_observance_0619.pdf
- Gates, Henry Louis. “What is Juneteenth?” PBS.  https://www.pbs.org/wnet/african-americans-many-rivers-to-cross/history/what-is-juneteenth/
- Gordon-Reed, Annette, On Juneteenth. New York: Liveright, 2021.
- Holznagel, Hans. “Juneteenth observances invite entire UCC to recall slavery’s end, commit to action.” United Church of Christ. June 10, 2020. https://www.ucc.org/juneteenth_observances_invite_entire_ucc_to_recall_slavery_s_end_commit_to_action/
- ‘‘Juneteenth National Independence Day Act.” Public. Law No. 117-17, 135 Stat. 287. 2021. https://www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/PLAW-117publ17/pdf/PLAW-117publ17.pdf
- King, Ruth. “The Meaning of Juneteenth.” Trike Daily. June 24, 2020. https://tricycle.org/trikedaily/juneteenth/
- McCorry, Casey. 2010. “Antinuclear Events Mark ‘Juneteenth.’” National Catholic Reporter 46 (19): 5–6. https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=rfh&AN=CPLI0000507470&site=ehost-live&scope=site
- Miles, Caren. “Juneteenth Liturgy.” Episcopal Formation in the Bay Area.  https://faithinformed.org/resources/juneteenth-liturgy
- National Black Catholic Seminarians Association. “NBCSA Juneteenth Statement.” United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. June 19, 2021. https://www.usccb.org/resources/NBCSA%20Juneteenth%20Statement%20(1)_0.pdf
- National Juneteenth Observance Foundation. “Directors and Planners Handbook.” NJOF.org. http://njof.mypressonline.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/03/NJOF-Directors-and-Planners-HANDBOOK-2022-021722-1.pdf
- Patterson, Jim. “United Methodist bishops pledge more effective anti-racism campaign.” ResourceUMC. June 19, 2020. https://www.resourceumc.org/en/content/united-methodist-bishops-pledge-more-effective-anti-racism-campaign
- Paulsen, David. “Diocese of California creates Juneteenth feast day amid push to add holiday to churchwide calendar.” Episcopal News Service. June 14, 2021. https://www.episcopalnewsservice.org/2021/06/14/diocese-of-california-creates-juneteenth-feast-day-amid-push-to-add-holiday-to-churchwide-calendar/
- Richardson, Heather Cox & Joanne Freeman. “Creating Federal Holidays, July 4th to Juneteenth.” Now & Then. July 6, 2021. https://cafe.com/now-and-then/creating-federal-holidays-july-4th-to-juneteenth/
- Salzhauer, Rebecca. “How are Jews Celebrating Juneteenth?” The Forward. June 16, 2021. https://forward.com/news/471523/how-are-jews-celebrating-juneteenth/
- Strange, Gail. “Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) celebrates Juneteenth in a one-of-a-kind worship service.” Presbyterian Mission. https://www.presbyterianmission.org/story/presbyterian-church-u-s-a-celebrates-juneteenth-in-a-one-of-a-kind-worship-service/
- Taylor, Charles. “The Black Church and Juneteenth.” National Juneteenth Christian Leadership Council.  https://web.archive.org/web/20181214100842/http://www.njclc.com:80/njclchistory.html [archived 2017]
- Tisby, Jemar. The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2019.
- Tisby, Jemar. How to Fight Racism: Courageous Christianity and the Journey toward Racial Justice. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2021.
- United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. “Open Wide Our Hearts: The Enduring Call to Love – A Pastoral Letter Against Racism.” Usccb.org. November 2018. https://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/human-life-and-dignity/racism/upload/open-wide-our-hearts.pdf
- Valinksy, Jordan. “Walmart Apologizes for Selling Juneteenth Ice Cream.” CNN. May 24, 2022. https://www.cnn.com/2022/05/24/business-food/walmart-juneteenth-ice-cream/index.html
- Washington, Ella F. & Jasmine Sanders. “How Your Organization Can Recognize Juneteenth.” Harvard Business Review Digital Articles, June 17, 2021, 1–6. https://hbr.org/2021/06/how-your-organization-can-recognize-juneteenth
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