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Juneteenth holiday celebrates ‘Freedom Anniversary’

In 1863, news traveled as slow as molasses.

News came by word of mouth and mail delivered on horseback, covered wagon or by stagecoach. Nevertheless, in 1865 – two years after President Abraham Lincoln abolished slavery – about 250,000 people in Texas still had no idea they were free. Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation declared “that all persons held as slaves” within the rebellious Confederate states “are, and henceforward shall be free.”

When abolitionist and social reformer Frederick Douglass heard about Lincoln’s proclamation, he said, “We shout for joy that live to declare this righteous decree.”

The hard-won battle for freedom

The War Between the States ended May 9, 1865. Gen. Gordon Granger, a Union war hero, was given control of what was then known as the District of Texas, a military department of the U.S. Army.

Before summer 1865, Texas was mostly unoccupied by the Union Army. In remote backwaters of the Confederacy, such as Texas, many Blacks remained enslaved for months after the war.

That changed on June 19, 1865, when Granger rode into Galveston, Texas, and announced that enslaved people had been freed. He issued General Order No. 3, which encouraged people to stay with their former masters, who would instead be considered employers. The ruling said, “The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages.”

Granger’s announcement didn’t keep the new freedmen in the Lone Star State. Many decided to seek a better life in the North or to return to their families. Some freedmen’s efforts to leave were prevented by former slave owners who tried to keep Lincoln’s proclamation a whispered secret.

Those who left found their options for celebrating their newfound freedom very limited. In 1866, many freed people sought to celebrate their “freedom anniversary,” but there were few public parks where they could go. Segregation laws were expanding. In the 1870s, a group of former enslaved people pooled $800 to buy 10 acres. Until the 1950s, that small plot of land – originally known as “Emancipation Park” – was Houston’s only public park with a swimming pool open to African Americans.

Juneteenth celebrations became popular during the 1960s with the civil rights movement, when Martin Luther King purposed to form a Poor People’s March to coincide with Juneteenth. The holiday was born when march participants took the celebration back to their home states.

Nearly 160 years later, Texas became the first state to recognize Juneteenth, when it made the day a state holiday. Congress passed legislation making Juneteenth a federal holiday, and President Joe Biden signed the bill into law June 17, 2021.

Essay contest helps spread the meaning of Juneteenth

Making sure that young people know about and understand Juneteenth’s origins is important, said Summit Media‘s Justin Ragland, Promotions, Marketing and Event director. Summit Media and Alabama Power are sponsoring an essay contest open to young people ages 8 to 18 in the Birmingham area, with $9,000 in scholarships available.

To take part, students may record a video up to 3 minutes, or write an essay about Juneteenth and what the holiday means. Entries should also express the importance of education about Juneteenth.

“Our stations 98.7 KISS and 95.7 Jamz and Alabama Power have always and will continue to pay tribute to our African American community,” Ragland said. “We wanted to make sure that youth understand about Juneteenth, what it is and what it means to them. We believe that it’s important because of the recognition that Juneteenth has finally received nationally and is at the forefront … we wanted children to do their research about this day. They need to be educated on exactly what Juneteenth was.”

One winner will be selected in each category:

  • Mr. Prince Juneteenth, ages 8-11, receives a $1,000 book scholarship.
  • Mr. Junior Juneteenth, ages 12-15, receives a $1,500 book scholarship.
  • Mr. Juneteenth, ages 16-18, receives a $2,000 scholarship to a Historically Black College or University (HBCU).
  • Little Miss Juneteenth, ages 8-11, receives a $1,000 book scholarship.
  • Junior Miss Juneteenth, ages 12-15, receives a $1,500 book scholarship.
  • Miss Juneteenth, ages 16-18, receives a $2,000 scholarship to a HBCU.

Kiss and Jamz will announce the winners on air on Juneteenth, and winners’ names will appear on the station websites.