On June 19, 1865, Union Gen. Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, with some 2,000 federal soldiers to enforce the emancipation of slaves. Abraham Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation two years earlier on Jan. 1, 1863. But due to the Civil War, slaves in the western United States were not granted their freedom until Granger's arrival. Former slaves and their descendants have celebrated ever since with an annual holiday of picnics, family gatherings, reflection, and rejoicing.
In Charleston, the celebration of the anniversary has struggled to gain recognition over the years, says organizer Fred "Pompey" Jones, but he expects some 500 people to attend the day-long event, which will take place at Hampton Park on Sat. June 16 from 1-8 p.m.
While blacks in the west long have honored Juneteenth as a significant date in their history, on the East Coast, where blacks learned of the Emancipation Proclamation almost immediately, there's been less enthusiasm for Juneteenth celebrations.
Jones said he got the idea for a local celebration during the Million Man March in Washington, D.C. in 1995.
"I was really inspired by people who vowed to return home to their communities and do things that uplifted the black community. When we got back to Charleston, many of us who had been to the march were joined by others and the Council of Elders was formed," he recalls. "The council undertook the effort. But we didn't hold our first celebration until 1997."
Since that first celebration, the challenge has been to educate the community about the significance of Juneteenth, he says.
"We decided that the celebration should be used as an education tool, not just for black people, but for Americans as a whole. Juneteenth is a celebration of freedom, and while it may not be observed widely in South Carolina and on the East Coast, it is a worldwide celebration, especially among African Americans in the military."
Another challenge has been getting the support of resources in the local community, Jones says.
"We've reached out to the organizations like the Emancipation Day Committee, which sponsors an annual parade on January 1, and the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, but sometimes egos get in the way. We were willing to collaborate but not turn over the whole thing after so many people had put in so much work."
In recent years, the annual celebration has resulted from the effort of only several individuals.
"My wife Lelia, who passed last December, did most of the legwork organizing the event, vendors, and stuff," says Jones. Three years ago Ethel Taylor, a transplanted New York City native, joined the small contingent of volunteers.
"We did it in New York when I worked with the Emancipation Day committee there," she notes. "So when they came to the Emancipation Day Committee here, which I also worked with since moving here, I thought it was a good idea. But I didn't actually start working with them until a few years ago."
This year's theme is "shedding the ignorance and increasing awareness," which Taylor says is very apt. "You'd be surprised to know how many people, even educated people, don't know what Juneteenth is about! That's probably why there isn't more participation," she says.
Jones hopes the local celebration ultimately will offset that negative.
"We want to eventually inspire the teaching about Juneteenth in classes. Our success will depend on how well we market it. But whatever level of participation we get we're going to continue to educate not just black people, but all people of good conscience about Juneteenth."