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OKLAHOMA CITY (Free Press) — A new federal holiday was established Thursday based on a century-old Black tradition of celebrating the end of slavery in the United States called “Juneteenth.”

President Joe Biden signed the bill into law Thursday designating June 19 a federal holiday after years of wrangling and false starts in Congress.

In his signing statement, Biden called Juneteenth, “A day in which we remember the moral stain and terrible toll of slavery on our country –- what I’ve long called America’s original sin.  A long legacy of systemic racism, inequality, and inhumanity.”

Eager to claim any reasonable space after the Trump years, the all-Republican Oklahoma delegation in the House and Senate voted in favor of the bill.

Friday, most federal workers (except in the postal service) have the day off because June 19 lands on Saturday this year.

And, Oklahoma City will have its first big Juneteenth celebration with the Juneteenth on the East Festival. For more information on that event go to withloveokc.org/juneteenth.

Black Independence Day

For Black people in Oklahoma, June 19, called “Juneteenth” has been the alternate Independence Day.

The historic celebration came out of the fabric of Black life in Galveston, Texas and quickly spread throughout Texas, Oklahoma, and other surrounding states. Eventually it took hold in other parts of the U.S.

At the end of the Civil War, Texas was defeated along with other southern, slave-holding states that were in the Confederacy.

U.S. Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger, assigned to administrate the Texas occupation district, informed Black slaves in Galveston on June 19, 1865, of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation issued two years earlier. The general then issued his own order that made it clear all people being held in bondage were free and any work they did would be as “hired labor.”

General Order No. 3, issued by Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger, June 19, 1865. The order was written in a volume beginning on one page and continuing to the next. (RG 393, Part II, Entry 5543, District of Texas, General Orders Issued) from National Archives

That event became the cornerstone of Juneteenth celebrations.

Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was an executive order that applied only to the rebelling states. It was meant to disrupt those states’ ability to continue using slaves to raise cotton for cash and food to supply their war effort. It allowed Union commanders to immediately free slaves as the Union Army made progress into the south.

But, the 13th Amendment to the Constitution permanently abolished slavery when it was ratified in December 1865 only six months after Black residents of Galveston had heard of Lincoln’s order and 300 years after the first black slave arrived in the Colonies.

Oklahoma City celebration

While some Black people have celebrated the July 4 Independence Day, Juneteenth has been an alternate celebration of independence for many in Oklahoma’s Black population, especially in Oklahoma City.

Oklahoma City’s east side is where Black author Ralph Ellison grew up during the time of legal segregation in Oklahoma. During that time, Juneteenth was celebrated with parades and various celebrations.

Significantly, Ellison’s last novel published posthumously is entitled Juneteenth, a story set within the meanings of deliverance from the ravages of slavery.

Juneteenth as a practiced holiday was the way Black people in Oklahoma City and the state claimed their own independence as segregation laws made Black people’s involvement in the celebration of the official Independence Day weeks later much more difficult.

In Oklahoma City, as segregation laws were dismantled and Blacks were allowed to move into many parts of Oklahoma City, Juneteenth became more a part of strong family traditions carried into the diaspora.

But the development of the Black Lives Matter movement reinvigorated the attention to Juneteenth eventually giving Congress the needed attention to pass the measure.

Oklahoma City’s first year to celebrate the national holiday will bring several events to city streets. One will be called Juneteenth on the East Festival featuring well-known Oklahoma City performer Jabee as well as other performers. The Festival will be the centerpiece of other activities stretching along N.E. 23rd Street between N. Kelham Ave. and N. Hood St.

Go to withloveokc.org/juneteenth for more information.

Last Updated June 18, 2021, 9:26 AM by Brett Dickerson – Editor