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Juneteenth is the oldest nationally celebrated commemoration of the ending of slavery in the United States. On June 19, 1865, a Union General rode into Galveston, Texas to announce that the Civil War had ended, and slaves had been freed.
I have never written a blog before and had to do a lot of research on Juneteenth to make sure the facts are correct and to find out exactly what Juneteenth meant. In the process, my heart ached at what I was reading. The inhumanity of man never ceases to amaze, outrage, and frighten me. Out of this came triumph and a celebration and hopefully a strongly cemented commitment that this NEVER happens again. TO ANYONE!
As a foundation to understanding the importance of celebrating Juneteenth, I started by looking at the definition of slavery: the condition in which one human being was owned by another. A slave was considered by law as property, or chattel and was deprived of most of the rights ordinarily held by free persons.
Researching slavery came with cold hard facts, heartbreaking stories, stories of triumph – overcoming a situation not of the person’s making, and ultimately awe at the resilience and courage found by people in unfathomable conditions. Some of the facts you already know, I’m sure. The beatings, chaining, whippings (after slaves were whipped, overseers might order their wounds to be burst and rubbed with turpentine and red pepper. An overseer reportedly took a brick, ground it into a powder, mixed it with lard, and rubbed it all over a slave), putting a bell around a person’s neck so they couldn’t escape, working in the fields 14 to 16 hours a day “from day clean to first dark” in extreme heat, forced to eat the animal parts their masters threw away. They cleaned and cooked pig intestines and called them “chitterlings.” They took the butts of oxen and christened them “oxtails.” Same thing for pigs’ tails, pigs’ feet, chicken necks, smoked neck bones, hog jowls, and gizzards. Rice, cornmeal, lard, molasses, peas, greens, and flour were distributed every Saturday. Vegetable patches or gardens, if permitted by the owner, supplied fresh produce to add to the rations. The food created from the ingredients listed above has a strong presence and influence on southern cuisine today. Many of the foods we enjoy have their roots in enslaved peoples’ toil, tradition, and creativity!
Resiliency comes in many forms and the enslaved human spirit during this time strived to inspire others to their freedom. Even at the cost of their own lives. Spirituals, a form of Christian song of African American origin, contained codes that were used to communicate with each other and help give directions. Some believe Sweet Chariot was a direct reference to the Underground Railroad and sung as a signal for a slave to ready themselves for escape. What we call cornrows today were a system of information. “The curved braids would represent the roads they would [use to] escape.” “In the braids, they also kept gold and hid seeds which, in the long run, helped them survive after they escaped.”
We have come a long way but not nearly far enough to make sure that everyone is treated as equals and lives with the same treatment and standards for living like everyone else. And it all starts with us as individuals.
Juneteenth was officially recognized as a holiday by Texas in 1980, and it is recognized and celebrated in many states. In Pennsylvania, Governor Wolf signed legislation in 2019 making June 19 “Juneteenth National Freedom Day.” Juneteenth is also recognized by counties and cities through press releases, resolutions, and proclamations such as these in our area of Delaware County, Chester County, and Doylestown, PA.
(https://www.delcopa.gov/publicrelations/releases/2020/juneteenth.html; https://www.delcopa.gov/publicrelations/releases/2021/juneteenth.html; https://www.chesco.org/4530/Juneteenth; https://www.doylestownborough.net/news/juneteenth-resolution)
Just this week, legislation was passed by the US Senate and the House and signed by President Biden making June 19, Juneteenth National Independence Day, a US federal holiday. This is the first new US federal holiday since establishing Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in 1983.
You can search for celebration activities in your town.
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This blog was written by guest author, Marylou Shirey, Coordinator of the Member and Family Satisfaction Team (M/FST) of Delaware County. Marylou possesses an incredible amount of compassion for all beings — across cultures and across species — and she feels compelled to advocate for those whose voice needs to be amplified so changes to social injustices are made. In her free time, she enjoys traveling, reading, visiting with friends, and thrift store treasure hunting.
Photo credit – Delaware County, PA Website (https://www.delcopa.gov/publicrelations/releases/2020/juneteenth.html)
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