While Juneteenth marks the day enslaved African Americans were set free, the true history is a bit more complicated. Tera Hunter, the Edwards Professor of American History and professor of African American studies at Princeton, delved into that true history in a virtual conversation on June 17, in honor of Juneteenth.
“One stroke of a pen did not and could not bring slavery to a halt,” Hunter said referring to the Emancipation Proclamation, signed in 1863. “African Americans initiated the process of their own emancipation at the very start of the war.”
On June 19, 1865, Union Gen. Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, with the news that slavery was over, Hunter explained. However, the first Juneteenth wasn’t celebrated until a year later because of resistance from white Texans. Hunter noted various racist policies and practices grew out of this resistance, including Black Codes, Jim Crow, and the start of the Ku Klux Klan.
Despite this, the day still marked a major turning point. “It is not surprising, then, that in light of the terror, the violence, and the setbacks, that Juneteenth would become a moment of celebration, with such gusto that has made it so long lasting,” said Hunter.
She added Juneteenth celebrates the reunion of families separated by slavery. “[It’s] a way to celebrate the achievements and gains of individuals and collective efforts of African Americans, and a way to inspire racial uplift, to give hope to future generations.”
Following her presentation, Hunter responded to a handful of questions submitted by the audience. They ranged from how to better educate oneself on the history of Juneteenth to grappling with symbolic gestures as opposed to real change.
Princeton, like many other organizations, officially recognized Juneteenth for the first time last year, in the aftermath of the racial awakening sparked last summer by George Floyd’s death. In May, Princeton announced Juneteenth would be a University holiday. The University also distributed copies of On Juneteenth by Annette Gordon-Reed, about the origins and significance of the holiday. At the national level, Congress passed a bill to make Juneteenth a federal holiday earlier this week. President Joe Biden is expected to sign the bill today.
“Now, many of you are probably wondering how the holiday is relevant to you and why you should celebrate it,” Hunter said near the end of her remarks. “I think Juneteenth is an important day for all Americans who can embrace it and support it, if we remember the value that it held at its inception — which we should continue to reflect on today. It marked a new beginning.”