By: Laisha Harris
The Civil War began on April 12, 1861. During the war, in 1863, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation that declared all enslaved people in the south were ‘free.’ The South was defeated on April 9, 1985. Mind you, there were no cell phones or email, so the message of freedom didn’t reach Texas until General Gordon Granger came to Galveston, the morning of June 19, 1865.
Juneteenth is a celebration that began in cities with large slave populations like Austin, Galveston, and Houston. At the time, we weren’t welcome at public parks and white spaces. In 1872, former slave Reverend Jack Yates, Richard Allen, Richard Brock, and Reverend Elias Dibble purchased land for a park that we know as Houston Emancipation Park.
As the oldest park in Texas, the land on Emancipation Park symbolizes more than a place for children and families to gather and play. Emancipation Park symbolizes the determination and subsequent action taken by those former slaves. For hundreds of years, they were property, incapable of owning the land they were forced to work on. As soon as an opportunity presented itself, Yates, Allen, Brock, and Dibble acquired $1,000 and purchased 10 acres of land to exclusively provide a space where black people can celebrate Jubilee Day. In 1938, Governor James Allred declared June 20 as the observance of Emancipation Day. For nearly 150 years, the black population has found a way to acknowledge and embrace the history and joy associated with Juneteenth before it was acknowledged as a Federal Holiday.
In 2021, President Joe Biden declared Juneteenth as the eleventh American federal holiday. Since then, brands such as Walmart, Amazon and Party City have started selling red, yellow, green, and black party favors, party décor and Juneteenth themed products “celebrating black freedom.”
“My favorite is the coozie that says, ‘it’s the Freedom for me.’ Like, I can tell these places do not have black people on their marketing team because there is no way a black person would’ve signed off and been like, ‘You know what, Jim, that’s a great idea!’” says Houstonian Brianna Perkins. “We have celebrated this day for years. If Walmart would have donated to the families were lost loved ones at the supermarket or gave black people a raise, they would have done something. But I literally do not care about the ice cream, and I don’t need table covers or stickers.”
The response shows clear polarities in what is valued amongst the two groups. On one hand, the value is in the dollar – what people will waste their money on in the spirits of celebration. On the other, the value is in the history: acknowledging the journey of our ancestors and the willingness to act. It is not a marketing scheme; it is not pandering with products, it is not a moment for mocking, nor is it a moment we have to share. How did Solange put it? “Don’t feel bad if you can’t sing along, Just be glad you got the whole wide world – This us.” This day is for us.