juneteenth

America’s Hollow Embrace of Juneteenth

Children at a Juneteenth parade in Denver, 1998. Photo: John Leyba/Denver Post via Getty Images

When Gordon Granger’s second stroke killed him in 1876, the 54-year-old Union Army officer had earned a reputation as a Civil War hero whose bosses couldn’t stand him. Ulysses S. Grant thought he was impudent and abrasive. William Tecumseh Sherman was annoyed that he always seemed to be sick and taking time off, including a two-year absence when he was supposed to be overseeing the District of New Mexico, where he would eventually die. His last breath was almost a mercy. He’d gone blind in one eye, had acute retinitis, and regularly coughed up blood because of various lung ailments inflamed by the dry desert air. He might’ve rested easier knowing how he’d be memorialized in the days and weeks after his death: not as the guy who regularly pissed off his superiors, but as the officer who led reinforcements to rescue George H. Thomas’s troops during the Battle of Chickamauga in 1863, the Civil War’s second-bloodiest battle, preventing one of the Union’s costliest defeats from becoming a catastrophic one.

It might seem strange to modern eyes to read his New York Times obituary from that year and find no mention that Granger was also the guy who told Texas the slaves had been freed. His proclamation at Galveston on June 19, 1865, inspired Juneteenth, the holiday that marks what many consider to be true Emancipation Day — when the last slave state fell and its Black residents learned they could leave their masters’ plantations, more than two years after President Lincoln had decreed it so. The announcement turned Granger into a Black history mainstay for the next 150 years, but the fact that it didn’t warrant mention in his obituary was consistent with Juneteenth’s contested place in American public life. It remains, to this day, a holiday marked by conditionality and deferral.

This dynamic lives on in ways that Granger couldn’t have foreseen. When protests and rioting gripped the country last summer in the wake of George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis, corporate entities glommed on to Juneteenth as a concession to shifting market forces, which were suddenly pressuring them to perform solidarity with Black struggle. Its mix of low risk and low cost has made it an appealing virtue signal.

Several companies embraced it to gloss over their poor treatment of their own workers. Amazon has spent years punishing its distribution center employees for trying to organize. Most recently, the retail behemoth thwarted a unionization effort at its warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, where the workforce is about 85 percent Black, through a mix of intimidation and aggressive propaganda. But Jeff Bezos was quick to encourage managers to cancel their meetings last Juneteenth and take time to “reflect.” At a warehouse in Chicago, workers were offered chicken and waffles to mark the occasion. “Where’s the solidarity in that?” read a post on an online forum for local Amazon workers. “We demand a paid holiday, not some damn chicken.”

In California last year, Uber spearheaded a $200 million campaign to pass a ballot measure, Proposition 22, that would ensure it didn’t have to categorize its drivers as employees with the attendant rights and benefits. The company did, however, give its employees a paid day off last Juneteenth, to much fanfare — the drivers were not included.

This may look like irony inconsistent with the spirit of the holiday, but Juneteenth was always more accurately understood as a celebration of freedom’s potential rather than its fulfillment. Granger’s 1865 pronouncement came with a warning that hinted at this pretty clearly — not just to the slavers who might defy his orders, but to the formerly enslaved. “The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages,” read Granger’s General Order No. 3. “[They] will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.” Black emancipation was already being envisioned as a new form of wage labor benefiting ex-slavers — a reflection not only of misgivings about the problems Black mobility might introduce, but of concerns about white backlash.

These concerns were well-founded. French forces had recently invaded Mexico and installed an emperor. Granger’s boss, Philip Sheridan, feared the new monarch’s army allying with Confederate fugitives and prolonging the fighting. Rebels who’d learned of their army’s defeat had already thrown much of the state into chaos, rioting and looting across Texas. Even at the end of the war, as occupying federal troops were struggling to impose a fragile calm, white anger and Confederate assaults of wandering freedmen held the very real threat of more bloodshed. Granger knew that Black freedom, momentous though it was, didn’t really mean Black freedom.

This ambivalence was baked into Juneteenth. Historian Randolph B. Campbell writes that one slave watched angry whites whip 100 Black celebrants in the city of Crockett when they heard the news. Another reported leaping in the air to express his excitement, and his master responded by firing a pistol several times between his feet. “Jump again,” the master said, “and I will shoot you between the eyes.” The next 12 years would bring more setbacks, like Reconstruction going down in flames and the onset of the lynching era, which lasted until the 1950s and saw some its most brutal manifestations in East Texas. Juneteenth celebrations continued, despite this violence, as celebrants clung stubbornly to the unfulfilled promise of Granger’s pronouncement. They spread beyond Texas, too. As Black people fled terrorism and economic deprivation in the South, many brought Juneteenth with them, a thin slice of liberty where little could be found otherwise.

By 1976, newspapers were publishing stories about the “resurrection” of dormant Juneteenth traditions. Commemoration had fallen off in many places, reports said, because of cultural shifts brought on by the civil-rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. It seemed that many Black people had taken the push for integration, and its marginal gains, as evidence that it was prudent to avoid any displays that highlighted their differences from white Americans rather than their similarities. So to rescue Juneteenth from obscurity, boosters started to reframe it as something all Americans could be proud of and celebrate together. The goal was to ease the holiday’s mainstream embrace — to forestall backlash and reassure skeptics that it wasn’t an indictment of them or the traditions they held dear. “Everybody is invited to participate in Juneteenth activities,” Henry Masters, a local booster, told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram at the time. “One of the things that makes America a Democracy prototype is its openness and spiritual commitment to ethnic pluralism.”

This framing worked, and helped usher in decades of growing popularity. Texas adopted Juneteenth as a state holiday in 1979. By 2019, it was officially recognized by 46 other states and the District of Columbia. Many activists and officials have been pushing for it to become a federal holiday, and they, too, have succeeded: This week, Congress voted to make it so.

There remains a hint of sourness to it all. The process of mainstreaming a once renegade and often neglected holiday was bound to be sporadic and riddled with contradictions. It hasn’t been lost on observers that Congress passed a Juneteenth bill without much trouble, but hasn’t done anything meaningful to curb police power, which is what most of last year’s demonstrators were actually asking for, let alone tried to pass ambitious legislation, like reparations, to address historical injustices. Gordon Granger couldn’t have known, on his deathbed in Santa Fe, the debt that embattled 21st-century PR departments and politicians would owe him after he was gone. But he probably wouldn’t be surprised that they, too, would be offering a degraded substitute for what people really needed.

America’s Hollow Embrace of Juneteenth