Shawn Alexander: Juneteenth and numerous other Emancipation Day celebrations (Column)

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Juneteenth is a Texas holiday that became a national holiday in June 2021. Its celebration, however, dates much further back for Texas and various areas of the country. Moreover, the celebration of Emancipation Day has a deeper and richer history in nearly every region of the country, including Kansas.

Juneteenth recognizes the end of slavery in Texas on June 19, 1865, when Union troops arrived in Galveston Bay. The Emancipation Proclamation, issued on Jan. 1, 1863, did not end slavery. President Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 executive order stated “that all persons held as slaves” within rebel territories “are, and henceforward shall be free,” but Lincoln had no control over the enslaved population in the Confederate States of America. It was a separate country. Union Army occupation therefore was necessary to enforce Lincoln’s order in rebel territory even after the proclamation and clear up to the ratification of the 13th Amendment on Dec. 6, 1865.

Because of this, there are multiple “Juneteenths” that occurred from Lee’s surrender, April 9, 1865, to the passage of the 13th Amendment. For instance, Florida recognizes May 20 as Emancipation Day because that is when Union Troops arrived in Tallahassee. Additionally, Kentucky and Delaware, two non-seceding, slaveholding states, did not end slavery until after the ratification of the 13th Amendment, nearly six months after June 19.

Moreover, other communities over the years have chosen to use Jan. 1 as the day to recognize emancipation, acknowledging the date Lincoln issued the proclamation, or Sept. 22, the date of his preliminary proclamation. Yet, others have settled on Aug. 1, a date that recognized the end of slavery in the British Empire.

Kansas, a non-slaveholding state, has not been immune to the debate over Emancipation Day. 

In the 1870s and 1880s, communities in Kansas and Missouri celebrated Aug. 1. In 1887, The Topeka Banner declared, “Ho for Leavenworth,” for the First Grand Independent Benevolent Society of Kansas and Missouri’s 13th Annual celebration. A few years later, the Western Recorder, a Lawrence-based paper, asked the community how they were going to spend the day on Aug. 1. By the 1890s, there was larger coverage of events happening in the city with, among other things, Leavenworth’s First Colored Battalion performing a drill in front of the Eldridge Hotel. There was also a major emancipation recognition event in Topeka’s Garfield Park, with excursion parties coming from Wyandotte, Fort Scott, and Atchison.

In 1890, the Black community of Atchison added Sept. 22 as an alternative Emancipation Day, holding a celebration at Goodhue park with good food and many noted speakers. The following year, other communities began recognizing Sept. 22, including Joplin, which advertised a grand celebration for “people of Southwest Missouri and Southeast Kansas” with a parade and free barbecue. 

Lawrence also began recognizing the September date in 1891 with speeches and a reading of the Emancipation Proclamation as well as the 14th and 15th amendments. The Historic Times commented on the success of the event and declared it “the first time the proper emancipation day was ever observed in Lawrence …”

The September Emancipation Day continued to be recognized into the 20th century with gatherings in Jackson County’s Shelley Park and parades in the Vine street area sponsored by the “two Kansas Citys” in the 1910s, as well as events in Topeka in the 1920s, Wichita in the 1930s and other locations throughout the years. But increasingly, Aug. 1 became the dominant day of recognition from the late 1930s through the 1960s, with celebrations in areas such as Wichita, Manhattan, Lawrence and Topeka.

Even amongst the dominance of Aug. 1 as the choice of celebratory dates, some communities considered Aug. 4 as an alternative. The origins of the date are uncertain, some consider it an alternative to July 4 while others see it connected to the Loyal Creek Council formally declaring African Creeks full citizens in the Creek Nation on Aug. 4, 1865.

Whatever the origins, the date was celebrated in Kansas for decades. It was acknowledged as early as 1891 in Lawrence. In 1933, the mayor of Wichita formally recognized the day as a moment of prayer and reflection, and large groups of both Kansans and Missourians took specially chartered trains to St. Joseph and Lake Contrary in the 1940s and 1950s for a day of celebration that often included the crowning of a beauty queen and jitterbug dancing.

It was not until the 1990s and early 2000s that Juneteenth celebrations occurred with increased frequency in Kansas and Missouri. This coincided with greater migration from Texas as well as the rising efforts of Black Texans to have the date recognized as a national holiday. 

In 2021, in the wake of the murder of George Floyd and the hard work and dedication of those who had long pushed Juneteenth, the date was ultimately acknowledged as a federal holiday. Two years later, Gov. Laura Kelly joined other governors in recognizing Juneteenth as a state holiday.

What is the proper date for the recognition of the end of the horrific system of racialized chattel slavery in the United States? Such a decision should be decided by every local community. As the Cleveland Journal declared in 1909, “a day is far better than no day.”

Today we have Juneteenth as a federal holiday with recognition by more than half of the states in the union. We as a nation need to celebrate, but at the same time educate. We must talk honestly about slavery and how the legacy of slavery can be seen in society today. Moreover, we need to acknowledge the long history of the African American community struggling for freedom in the United States.

For generations, no matter what date was selected, freedom and an understanding of the meaning of freedom has been at the center of Emancipation Day events. We must honor and respect that history and legacy.

About this column

“The Way of the Wide, Wide World” is a regular column about race, history and politics by Shawn Leigh Alexander, professor of African & African-American Studies at the University of Kansas. Dr. Alexander is the author of, among other titles, “An Army of Lions: The Struggle for Civil Rights before the NAACP” (2012) and “W. E. B. Du Bois: An American Intellectual and Activist” (2015). He is also a frequent consultant and contributor on PBS documentaries, including “Reconstruction: America After the Civil War” (2019) and “Niagara Movement: The Early Battle for Civil Rights” (2023).

Read more of “The Way of the Wide, Wide World” at this link.

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