Marking slavery's demise

Juneteenth: Holiday celebrates arrival of word that the chains of bondage had been broken.

June 19, 1999|By Melody Holmes | Melody Holmes,SUN STAFF

A peculiar word in African-American history translates to "freedom" for many people: "Juneteenth."

Today, Maryland and 43 other states will hold celebrations of June-teenth, one of the oldest African-American holidays, marking the end of slavery in the United States.

Juneteenth, celebrated on June 19, commemorates the day in 1865 when Union Army troops arrived in Galveston, Texas, with the news that all slaves had been declared free. This news was delivered more than two years after President Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation abolished slavery in the South, and two months after the end of the Civil War.

As for the word's origin, some believe that "Juneteenth" comes from the variation of slave English from traditional English. The words "June" and "nineteenth" essentially became fused together. Others think that the news of the slaves' freedom reached Texas and Oklahoma sometime between the 13th and the 19th of June, and the lack of an exact date resulted in "Juneteenth."

Juneteenth was "one of the main celebrations that black people engaged themselves in after the Civil War," said Dr. Elmer P. Martin, co-founder and president of Baltimore's Great Blacks in Wax Museum.

Martin, who has studied the origins of Juneteenth, adds that the holiday "caught on across the country" and for the most part, made obsolete the previous celebration of the Aug. 2, 1834 emancipation of slaves in parts of the Caribbean.

Martin, who has attended June-teenth celebrations in Missouri and Ohio, says such events are popular because of the variety of attractions they offer.

He says that to him the festivities are not "as important as keeping the linkage to such an old holiday."

Some blacks, like Jackie Terry of Baltimore, feel Juneteenth is no cause for celebration. "I don't celebrate the holiday, but I'm not negating anyone who does," she said. Terry said that celebrating the holiday is impractical because "it was so long before our ancestors found out they were free; whites took advantage of us for so long." Last year she attended a June-teenth festival in Baltimore. "It was OK," she said, "but when I considered all the history behind it, I had issues."

Those who consider the holiday legitimate intend to celebrate it. Besides the 44 state celebrations, Juneteenth has gone international, with observances at U.S. military bases in Kuwait, Italy, South Korea, Spain and Guam.

Baltimore's Juneteenth Jubilee will take place from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. today in St. Mary's Park, 606 N. Paca St. It features history lectures, walking tours, singing, poetry readings, a quilting bee, a watermelon-seed-spitting contest, a yo-yo competition, Tai-Chi demonstrations, displays of African art, black dolls and collectibles, and food. Tickets are $3; $5 for families.

Call (410) 467-2724.

The Baltimore festivities also included last night's Juneteenth Event at Baltimore City Community College.

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