The Origins of Juneteenth: Celebrating Black Freedom and Achievement
with Christopher Wilson of the National Museum of American History
On June 19, 1865, enslaved African Americans in Galveston, Texas learned they were free, which led to an annual celebration that's come to be known as Juneteenth.
Christopher Wilson, Director of Experience at the National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian Institute, joins Tetiana Anderson to discuss the true origin and history behind the annual celebration.
Jun 16, 2021
Anderson: On June 19, 1865, enslaved African-Americans in Galveston, Texas, learned they were free. That led to an annual celebration that's come to be known as Juneteenth. More recently, following nationwide protests over police brutality and racial justice, there's a renewed interest in this day that celebrates African-American freedom and achievements. Hello and welcome to "Comcast Newsmakers." I'm Tetiana Anderson. Juneteenth celebrations happen locally across the United States every year, but what's the true origin and history behind this day? Well, joining me to answer that question is Christopher Wilson, Director of Experience Design at the National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian Institution. Chris, thanks for being here.
Wilson: Thank you for having me, Tetiana.
Anderson: So, we know federal troops rolled into Galveston in the spring of 1865, but why exactly were they there? What was the mission focus?
Wilson: Well, in one sense, it was to let the enslaved African-Americans know that slavery was ended. But even more importantly, it was about power getting to Texas and enforcing the Emancipation Proclamation and letting enslavers know that the institution of slavery was over. The Emancipation Proclamation had been issued in 1863 by President Lincoln, and it declared slavery illegal in all parts of the country where -- that were still in rebellion against the United States. But it took a long time for the Army to enforce that ruling across the country. And Texas was one of the last places that was still in rebellion, even following the end of the Civil War. So those troops got there and said, "You know what? This is over now, and your slaves are free."
Anderson: So, they got there. They said, "This is over." They said that slaves were free. But some slaves didn't get the message. What was going on? There was a lot of obfuscation. Why?
Wilson: Well, yes, there were about a quarter-million enslaved African-Americans in Texas at the end of the Civil War. And that number had ballooned throughout the war really because enslavers, slaveholders had -- were trying to keep their property away from the power of the federal government and the power of the United States Army and orders like the Emancipation Proclamation that were intended to end slavery. So throughout that two-year period, and really throughout the whole war, people who held slaves were trying to keep them in the dark, keep themselves in power, and keep the institution alive.
Anderson: So, Juneteenth originally marked this day of emancipation, but over the course of time, over the decades, this holiday has evolved in its meaning. What's changed? What's shifted?
Wilson: Well, I think part of the shift is people understanding a bit more that freedom is really a process and freedom is a decision. Emancipation wasn't just one moment. There were emancipation celebrations at different times all across the South related to the moments of emancipation that occurred. In D.C., this took place in April because the Compensated Emancipation Act that took place in the District of Columbia took place in April of 1862. And so emancipation celebrations were something that happened locally related to that particular story. But now I think people are starting to understand that our history shows that people had to really grasp freedom and that freedom was an act as well as a moment.
Anderson: And the fact of the matter remains that a lot of people still don't know what Juneteenth is, but how have the events of 2020 and the groundswell of focus on racial justice, equity, policing, the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others changed that?
Wilson: I think one of the things that people are realizing more and more is that history has power. And we talk a lot in public history here at the Smithsonian about the difference between history and memory. History is what happened in the past and the work of historians to discover that using evidence. But memory is something different. And when we as a public, as a society, choose to remember certain history over others, that has power. And I think people are understanding that -- that we need to have a fuller understanding of history and a fuller memory in order to really highlight the diversity of the stories in this country and not leave people out and their stories.
Anderson: And, Chris, if people want to find out more about the National Museum of American History or the Smithsonian, where should they go? What's the website?
Wilson: Well, they can go to -- Smithsonian's website is si.edu. And the American History Museum is americanhistory.si.edu.
Anderson: Chris Wilson, thank you so much for being here.
Wilson: Thank you so much for having me, Tetiana.
Anderson: And thanks to our viewers, as well, for watching. For more great conversations with leaders in your own community and across the nation, log on to comcastnewsmakers.com. I'm Tetiana Anderson.