US slavery: What is Juneteenth and how is it commemorated?

A look at the African American commemoration day amid sky-high tension over race relations in the United States.

The occasion holds particular significance this year as it comes amid US protests against the killing of Black people [Alex Brandon/AP]
The occasion holds particular significance this year as it comes amid US protests against the killing of Black people [Alex Brandon/AP]

Juneteenth, an annual commemoration marking the emancipation of African American slaves, will see events held all across the United States on Friday.

Organisers say the occasion holds particular significance this year – despite limitations because of coronavirus – as it comes amid a reckoning with the US’ troubled racial history following last month’s death of George Floyd under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer.

Here is a brief guide of what June 19 represents: 

What is Juneteenth? 

Juneteenth, a blend of June and 19th, commemorates the US abolition of slavery under President Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, belatedly announced by a Union army in Galveston, Texas, on June 19, 1865, after the Civil War ended.

Texas officially made it a holiday in 1980 and at least 46 other states and the District of Columbia have since followed suit. Calls to make it a federal holiday have increased since the killing of Floyd. 

This year, a number of major companies declared June 19 – also known as Emancipation Day or Freedom Day – a paid holiday for employees.

How is it commemorated? 

In the early years, there was little interest outside the African American community in the commemoration, according to the website Juneteenth.com.

 

Most of the activities took place in rural areas with church grounds a predominant venue. However, as African Americans became landowners, areas were donated and dedicated.

The date reached new dimensions in 1872 when a group of African Americans in Houston, Texas bought 10 acres of land and created Emancipation Park, a place that became home for their Juneteenth celebration.

The day is also marked in Booker T Washington Park near Hardy, Virginia after the local Juneteenth organisation bought it in 1898. 

People tend to honour June 19, 1865, with picnics, street fairs, family reunions, and music festivals.

Then Denver Mayor Wellington Webb and wife Wilma march at the Juneteenth parade in Five Points, Denver, Colorado, in 1998 [File: John Leyba/The /Getty Images]

How to celebrate this year? 

Friday’s celebrations will be marked from coast to coast with marches and demonstrations of civil disobedience.

Some of the focus will be on activities on social media with online lectures, discussions, and virtual meals to help safeguard minority communities hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic.

One possible focal point of Juneteenth observances will be Tulsa, Oklahoma, where President Donald Trump’s first campaign rally in three months will be held. It was originally scheduled for Friday but moved to Saturday after a storm of opposition.

Critics said staging the rally on Juneteenth in Tulsa – the scene of a notorious massacre of African Americans by white mobs in 1921 – showed a profound lack of sensitivity to the city’s history.

What is significant this year? 

Juneteenth coincides with global protests against racial injustice sparked by the May 25 killing of Floyd, a Black man, in Minneapolis police custody.

It also follows this month’s killing of Rayshard Brooks, a Black man shot in the back twice by a white police officer, in Atlanta.

Juneteenth also accompanies the coronavirus pandemic, which has disproportionately affected communities of colour.

Community organisations nationwide will devote the day to discussions on policing and civil rights ahead of the November US presidential election.

Who was George Floyd?


Social media reaction 

This year, part of the discussion and commemorations will be held around the hashtag: #Juneteenth

Source : Al Jazeera, News Agencies

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