Celebrating Juneteenth: An Important Part of American History

By Angela Lindsay

In recent years, the world has taken more notice of Juneteenth. From increased public celebrations across the U.S. and beyond to companies allowing employees to take the day off, the observance has experienced phenomenal growth in popularity and recognition. With dozens of Juneteenth events scheduled this year in Charlotte and surrounding areas, residents will have the opportunity to learn more about the importance of a holiday which many in the community have always known.

On June 19, 1865, Union army troops led by General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, to announce that enslaved people in the state had been freed by executive decree — releasing 250,000 Black people from the chains of centuries of oppression. The problem was that it was a whole two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation had already been issued by President Abraham Lincoln on Jan. 1, 1863.

Myths abound regarding the reason for the large gap in time. As one story goes — a messenger was murdered on his way to Texas with the news of freedom. Another is that the news was deliberately withheld by the enslavers to maintain the labor force on the plantations. Yet another story is that federal troops waited for the slave owners to reap the benefits of one last cotton harvest before going to Texas to enforce the Emancipation Proclamation. Whatever the reason, the issues surrounding freedom and justice remain ongoing in 2023, which is even more reason to honor Juneteenth’s history and tradition.

Short for June 19th, Juneteenth is the oldest nationally celebrated commemoration of the ending of slavery in the United States. The day continued to be highly revered in Texas decades after it occurred, with many former slaves and descendants making an annual pilgrimage back to Galveston on this date.

Albert Ely Edwards, who served in the Texas House of Representatives for almost 30 years, wrote the bill that eventually passed on June 7, 1979, making Juneteenth an official state holiday.   President Joe Biden signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act into law establishing Juneteenth as a federal holiday on June 17th 2021.

Here in Charlotte, the oldest Juneteenth celebration was the vision of Pape Ndiaye, owner of the House of Africa art gallery in Plaza Midwood. The Senegal native founded the Juneteenth Festival of the Carolinas 26 years ago in part because when he arrived in Charlotte, there wasn’t one, and he not only wished to use it as a “teaching tool” for the youth but also to educate the community about the “rich and powerful history of Africa.”

“My grandmother used to say that when you travel, you need to get direction,  culture and heritage — the kind of direction that can help you move forward. That is part of my aim of starting the Juneteenth festival,” Ndiaye shared, adding that he hopes people will take away a sense of togetherness and unity. “That’s the only way we can go forward.”

This year’s festival will run from June 15-18th in the heart of Plaza Midwood and will showcase many events, including a celebration of history, African culture, music, drama, African dancers, a fashion show, storytelling, a talent show and the popular drum circle performance in front of House of Africa. Also planned is a “March for Unity and Togetherness” parade beginning at Grady Cole Center on N. Kings Drive and ending at House of Africa on Thomas Avenue. Various hospitals and clinics will also be onsite conducting screenings and HIV/AIDS seminars.

A special tribute on Thomas Avenue is planned for the event’s longtime chairwoman Judge Shirley L. Fulton, who was the first African American woman to win a superior court seat in North Carolina, who passed away earlier this year.

The Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture has been honoring Juneteenth for decades as well, even back when it was known as the Afro-American Cultural Center.

“Juneteenth is mainly a point of reflection,” said Afeni Grace, public programs manager at the Gantt. “It is important for our community to reflect on history in refreshing ways so as to not repeat its regressive elements. Juneteenth is a celebration cultivated from a dark past … It is a great opportunity for all of us to creatively celebrate diversity and uplift equity as a necessary pillar of a thriving community.” 

This year, the Gantt will partner with local artists and creative, grassroots initiatives to make the 2023 celebration refreshing and unique, she said. The free event will include hands-on art, music, dance, discussion and reflection and is geared toward people of all ages and backgrounds.

“This year we hope to spark great pride in our community — inspiring guests to foster deeper connections with each other and truly understand the resilience and beauty of Black history and culture,” Grace said. “Juneteenth is more than just an African American holiday,” Ndaiye adds. “It is a piece of America’s history.”