It was a day for celebration for me for as long as I could remember.
Every June 19, regardless of what day of the week it fell on, my dad, J.C. Hughes Sr., would pull out the barbecue pit, relatives would come over and it was a day of fellowship. My father called the day Juneteenth, the day the slaves were freed.
Long before I learned the Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation and the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, I knew about Juneteenth. It wasn’t just my family in Beaumont, Texas. Everyone in my neighborhood celebrated the day. At least, everyone of color I knew at the time.
But long before it was to be considered a state holiday in Texas and talk by some of a national holiday, we celebrated it.
The textbook definition of Juneteenth is as follows: The day Union soldiers led by Gen. Gordon Granger landed in Galveston, Texas, June 19, 1865 and told African-American slaves they were freed. That was 2½ years after the President Abraham Lincoln’s executive order and two months after Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox Court House, Virginia, ending the Civil War.
“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 rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and free laborer,” said the order Granger read when he reached Galveston.
While I won’t bore you with all the nuances and details that happened before and after the Juneteenth, for a young child growing up in South, which was just a few years removed from dropping its segregated “Whites Only” and “Black Only” signs, it meant a sign a respect, a measure of validation and a symbol of hope.
As a journalist, I wrote my first article on Juneteenth for the Beaumont Enterprise several years after Texas made Juneteenth a state holiday because of the continued efforts by then State Rep. Al Edwards in 1980. Every year, I would seek out celebrations in hopes to write about the day to educate others about to this day is the only celebration that marks the end of slavery.
Make no mistake, this is not a holiday just for African-Americans. It is an American celebration. It is a celebration of endurance and hope for people who were enslaved in a country that calls itself the land of the free. It is a celebration that America truly started to live out its creed that everyone is created equal. It marks the first step where every American could make an equal contribution to society and equally enjoy all of its benefits.
That was the first step mind you. America has come a long way since then still and has a long way to go from here, but Juneteenth celebrates that step in the right direction. That should be recognized, remembered and honored by all.
This is why Juneteenth should be a federal holiday and celebrated in all 50 days and territories. In 2005, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called slavery America’s “original sin.” She was right. Being able to make amends for that sin, we have to know how we got here and how we can move forward.
A federal holiday would be a recognition to all Americans of where we have been and how we can continue to move forward. Too many federal holidays? Surely, if Columbus Day is still a federal holiday, we can surely find room for Juneteenth.
In fact, as of 2014, 43 of the 50 states and the District of Columbia recognized Juneteenth as either a state holiday or ceremonial holiday, a day of observance. Only Hawaii, Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota do not.
My hope is that the day my parents taught me about as a child with hint of pride and joy can now be officially shared across the nation.