'Something To Be Celebrated By Everyone': Honoring The Importance Of Juneteenth

By Tom Maxedon
Published: Friday, June 18, 2021 - 5:15am
Updated: Saturday, June 19, 2021 - 11:05am

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Emancipation Proclamation
National Archives and Records Administration
The Emancipation Proclamation, dated Jan. 1, 1863.

June 19 is now a federal holiday, as President Joe Biden Thursday signed legislation recognizing Juneteenth as the end of slavery in America. KJZZ explores further how the date exemplifies a celebration of the closing of an uniquely horrific chapter in American history.

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The name comes from combining the word “June” with the day “19th.”

“The Emancipation Proclamation was handed down in January of 1863. But, the people in Texas didn’t know of it and they were enslaved for two more years until a Union general went there and informed them. Juneteenth came about and that special celebration partly as a result of that. It’s come to be celebrated across the United States,” said Brenda Thomson, executive director of Arizona Humanities.

Thomson said June 19, 1865, references an important time in American history when already-freed slaves in Galveston, Texas, heard the confirming announcement for the first time from Union Army general Gordon Granger who traveled to Texas to deliver it. 

'Something To Be Celebrated By Everyone': Thomson On Juneteenth As A Federal Holiday
(Recorded prior to the signing of the holiday into federal law.)

Modern celebrations of Juneteenth in Phoenix, and all over the nation, frequently bring together musicians, artists, poets, activists, community leaders and vendors like Ruttown Records Music Group based in Gilbert.  

In a YouTube video, one of the group’s unidentified representatives recorded a social media promotional announcement at their vendor venue while music played from the setup under their popup tent.

“As you can see once again, Ruttown at Juneteenth 2010, selling CDs and posters,” he said.

Phong Le
Brenda Thomson with Arizona Humanities Board Member Eshé Pickett and Chandler Councilman Sam Huang, 2019 Humanities Awards.

But, slice of life outtakes from video capturing Juneteenth festivities in Phoenix were nearly non-existent 10 years later as the coronavirus canceled all manner of events in 2020.

Different people commemorate Juneteenth in various ways. 

Clottee Hammons is a scholar, writer, activist, artist and creative director for Emancipation Arts, in Phoenix. Long ago, she recognized, “the fact that we do not have one day in this country that acknowledges the victims of American chattel slavery that basically built the financial infrastructure of this country and so I decided to do something about it myself.”  

For 25 years, Hammons has led the country’s longest-running reading marathon of literary and historical work devoted to examining the definition, law, human condition and legacy of slavery.  

Hammons On The Origin Of The Emancipation Reading Marathon And Its 25th Anniversary

“There are so many activities going on for Juneteenth, and there is very little in the way of acknowledgement as far as slavery goes," Hammons said. "I always schedule my event so that people are free to take in all of the Juneteenth activities, and then mine will follow.”

The marathons feature people with diverse backgrounds, like truck driver Jason Landrum Sr. who read from a book entitled, "America’s War: Talking About the Civil War and Emancipation on Their 150th Anniversaries," edited by Edward L. Ayers.

Landrum's reading included a famous speech entitled "What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July," written and delivered by Frederick Douglass on July 5, 1852, in Rochester, New York. Douglass’ address commemorated the signing of the Declaration of Independence, America’s founding document, which proclaimed, “... all men are created equal, [and] are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” 

Frederick Douglass
Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture
A black-and-white photograph of Frederick Douglass.

Obviously, that was not the case for slaves.  

“The sunlight that brought life and healing to you has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth of July is yours not mine. You may rejoice. I must mourn,” recited Landrum.

Some see Juneteenth as their version of Independence Day.

For Hammons and her annual reading marathon, the point is to examine the uniquely American horror story of slavery.

“Some people will say, ‘Oh, my Irish ancestors were slaves,’ and it’s like bull----. No they were not. There’s a vast difference in being enslaved in perpetuity and being an indentured servant.”  

This year, Hammons and others will read live and stream from Changing Hands Bookstore in Phoenix on Saturday, June 26 from 10:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Earlier this year, Hammons appealed to President Joe Biden, “to establish a national holiday devoted to dignified commemoration of the enslaved African victims of America’s remorseless expenditure of lives, cultures, families and futures. There can be no meaningful reconciliation without acknowledgement.”

On Thursday, the call Hammons and others made was answered when Biden signed the observance of Juneteenth as a federal holiday into law.

Thomson On Segmenting History

Thomson sees Juneteenth as an opportunity to reexamine modes of education and how the humanities can heal.

“When I learned about things in school we would learn about a specific person in a time or a specific incident in history,” she said. “So, we did learn about slavery. We learned about the Underground Railroad. We learned about Harriet Tubman. We learned about Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. But, there are so many more contributions of African Americans. There are African American astronauts, doctors, lawyers, politicians, presidents of the United States, Barack Obama, and so those things need to be incorporated into the curriculum. Humanities teach us to listen to and learn from the stories of everyone. That is the foundation of a democracy and America’s history."

The date is also an opportunity to examine the carceral treatment of people of color and meaningful criminal justice reform, according to Thomson.

Elaine Thomas Campbell
Clottee Hammons is creative director of Emancipation Arts in Phoenix and is the creator of the annual Emancipation Marathon which has been running for 25 years.

"There's a disproportionate number of people who are Black and brown who are being convicted of crimes. It's been demonstrated those people tend to receive more severe sentences and so that disparate treatment is part of what you want to reconcile," Hammons said.

Thomson On 'Criminal Justice Reform'

As America looks to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic, crowds will gather this year and Juneteenth festivities throughout the Phoenix area will return to commemorate the end of an even more horrific chapter in the nation’s history. 

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