(PNS) While not the most widely known or celebrated holiday, Juneteenth is certainly one of the more significant holidays in the history of this nation.
On June 17, 1865, Union Major General Gordon Granger, along with thousands of federal troops, rode into Galveston, Texas to establish martial law. Two days later, Granger announced that the Civil War had ended and slaves had been freed. Approximately 250,000 slaves living in Texas had no idea that President Abraham Lincoln had issued a proclamation nearly three years earlier stating that all slaves were free.
On that day in Texas, June 19, Granger announced General Order #3: “The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.”
This was the first time those enslaved in the state of Texas, the most western part of the Confederacy, had heard about Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.
With the announcement, the newly freed people flooded the streets in celebration, screaming “I’m free! I’m free!” News of their new-found freedom continued to spread to the remaining slaves in Texas. Juneteenth, the oldest known celebration honoring the end of slavery in the United States, was launched the following year.
It was on June 19, 1866 when large celebrations began and continued regularly into the early 20th century. For African Americans, this day was like the Fourth of July, and the celebrations contained similar events. Reporting at the time indicates that the typical Juneteenth celebration included a prayer service, speakers with inspirational messages, a reading of the Emancipation Proclamation, stories from former slaves, food, red soda water, games, rodeos and dances.
And, while Juneteenth embodies the same sense of liberation for African Americans as July 4th does for all Americans, our nation continues to struggle with the oppressive, inequitable and unjust treatment of people of color.
The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) recognizes that our country continues to struggle with “justice for all.” As such the Presbyterian Mission Agency has identified dismantling structural racism as one of its three focuses. The Matthew 25 invitation asks PC(USA) churches and mid councils to join in this effort by “fearlessly applying our faith to advocate and break down the systems, practices and thinking that underlie discrimination, bias, prejudice and oppression of people of color.”
Presbyterian churches celebrate
One congregation answering this call while embracing and celebrating Juneteenth is the Presbyterian Church in Morristown, New Jersey, where David Smazik is senior pastor.
The city of Morristown had numerous activities and speakers on The Green, the center of town, to commemorate the Juneteenth holiday.
“Our church hosted a panel discussion on gentrification, race and freedom,” said Smazik. He says that while most attention around slavery focused on the South, the North had its issues as well. And to this day, Smazik says, “in the Northeast, gentrification is a huge problem,” making affordable housing a barrier for many. The panel included Smazik along with Larry Hamm, founder of the People’s Organization for Progress; Dr. Betty Livingston Adams, author of “Black Women’s Christian Activism,” and attorney Kisha J. Pinnock.
In addition to its participation in the city’s Juneteenth celebration, the Presbyterian Church in Morristown works in partnership with Rendall Memorial Presbyterian Church in central Harlem in New York City in an effort they call “Undoing Racism.” Smazik and the Rev. Dr. Flora Wilson Bridges, pastor of Rendall, often bring the two churches together for joint worship services. “The two congregations have been working together for years,” said Smazik.
The two congregations have developed an “Undoing Racism Mission Statement.” It reads:
“As we bear witness to the power and glory of God we aim to support, embrace and celebrate diversity and difference in all our work and we encourage others to do the same through the transformative power of love and relationship.
“We recognize that a commitment to becoming a multicultural, inclusive and anti-racist group is not the same as actually becoming one with a shared identity in Christ. We will listen to the experiences of one another and discuss how to break down racial divides between both individuals and institutions.
“Undoing institutional racism is a term that describes our work to reverse the damaging impacts of racism within ourselves, our group, and within society. We will work to allow the Sporit to transform and refashion us into people who more authentically and more dynamically act justly and compassionately toward one another and our human family.”
Sterling Morse, former coordinator for African American Intercultural Congregational Support in Racial Equity & Women’s Intercultural Ministries, wrote, “Juneteenth serves as a chronological turning point in American history, celebrating the triumph of the human spirit over the cruelty of slavery. Juneteenth is a time to pause and remember those African-Americans descendants who suffered and died, and to honor those who survived as living witnesses to the inhumane institution of slavery. It is a time to venerate the shining legacy of resistance and resiliency of an abjectly oppressed people.
“Juneteenth is not just an African American holiday, but is a template of God’s redeeming grace to all Americans — indeed, all globally who hunger and thirst after righteousness, mercy, and justice.”
by Gail Strange, Presbyterian News Service