By Ashley Kitchens
For the first time in Alabama state history, the governor has declared Juneteenth (June Nineteenth) as a state holiday, and as such, Jefferson State Community College closed at noon in honor and recognition of this day on June 18, 2021. After seeing this holiday declared literally hours away from the actual date of the day of memorial, many people just considered this another day off. However, not many people understand the significance of this now declared holiday.
The holiday officially marks the ending of slavery in the United States and is considered a symbol of African American freedom. According to official sources, General Gordon Granger, an officer in the Union Army during the Civil War, proclaimed the order for freedom by announcing General Order No. 3 in Texas on June 19, 1865 stating, “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. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere” (Davis). The source also points out the segregational language in the last few sentences in this proclamation that would no doubt be the beginnings of civil rights and equality debates for the century to come after this. However, the dedication to this day marks the beginning of freedom for all people of color who were burdened under the horrors of slavery while white Americans enjoyed freedom.
This official recognition is equally important to the long-standing tradition of celebrating July 4 as a day of national independence. When America broke free from its bonds under an oppressive government and formed its own union in 1776, it continued the practice of slavery. When Frederick Douglass - American abolitionist, highly revered African American author, and former slave -was asked to speak to a crowd for a July 4th celebration in 1852, less than ten years before the start of the Civil War, he brought this injustice into full view with his powerful oratory. In his speech, he asks a powerfully rhetorical question and brings to light the unabashed truthful answer:
What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy—a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour. (Douglass)
Douglass’ entire speech illustrates the hypocrisy of an America that only recognized one kind of freedom. Douglass and many other abolitionists and people from both the North and the South helped support the movement to end slavery and create freedom for all a decade later. And although there was still a long path to equality, the flames of freedom were fanned.
The symbolism and meaning of holidays often get glossed over in the excitement for a day off work or a chance to gather and eat good food with family and friends. However, as we embark on continuing to honor this day with a federal, and now state commissioned holiday designation, the true meaning of freedom for people of color and the idea of a true independence from tyranny for all the people of the United States should be brought to the forefront of our thoughts. We only move forward by acknowledging the past, reflecting on our history, and rejoicing in moving forward.
Davis, Michael. “National Archives Safeguards Original ‘Juneteenth’ General Order.” National Archives News, 19 June 2020, https://www.archives.gov/news/articles/juneteenth-original-document.
Douglass, Frederick. “What to the Slave is the 4th of July?” 5 July 1852, https://masshumanities.org/files/programs/douglass/speech_abridged_med.pdf.
The spring 2021 semester edition of the JSCC Digital Museum was themed around the "Mysteries and Oddities of the World.” The museum delves into topics such as conspiracy theories, biological mysteries, wonders of the world, literary fiction about odd people or suspicious events. The digital museum can be accessed on the Jeff State library website.
The museum has four distinct sections. The “Features” section includes entries from the Speech and Debate Team investigating conspiracy theories and from the Spotlight Drama Club presenting an original one act. The “Biology” section includes entries from Professor Arnold’s Anatomy & Physiology 202 class delving into biological oddities. The “History” section includes entries from Professor McRae’s HIS 101 class based around the Seven Wonders of the World. And the final section, “Literature,” includes entries from Professor Kitchens’ American Literature 252 class examining characters with mysterious traits from the Ransom Riggs book Tales of the Peculiar.