On June 19, 1865, two months after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House and two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation, the good news that all slaves were free reached the western reaches of the former confederacy upon the arrival of Union troops in Galveston, Texas.
Although the subject of local and regional commemorations ever since, particularly by Black Americans, this past Monday was only the third Juneteenth since Congress made it a federal holiday in 2021. The relative infancy of Juneteenth as a day of national celebration means that it is still being invested with tradition.
How should we best remember a day that is so resonant with different and conflicting meaning? With jubilation at the promise of freedom. With humility that freedom’s promise is not self-fulfilling – a lesson from Galveston that throws in tragic relief the distance still between equality at law and equality in fact. A day that stings from the shame of America’s history of chattel slavery, but which even in its enshrinement as a national holiday offers hope that by generations and increments the arc of history is actually bending toward justice.
Is Juneteenth celebratory or solemn, festive or decorous? A party or a church service? Maybe it is all of these.
On Monday, a crowd gathered in the afternoon sun of Alexandria’s Market Square to listen to members of Washington Revels Jubilee Voices offer a performance to meet the occasion. Presented by the Office of Historic Alexandria and co-sponsored by Washington Revels and the Alexandria Black History Museum, the Jubilee Voices shared “Singing the Journey: Juneteenth Joy,” a collection of traditional music and spoken word.
Stories, poetry, gospel hymns and work songs echoed through our public square. A cultural inheritance born amid slavery’s desolation, but which in its beauty, courage and faith gave the lie to those that would deny through bondage the humanity of Black women, men and children.
As the audience began to participate, some tepidly and then more confidently, in the call and response rhythms of a Black gospel choir something thrilling happened. An assembly of strangers became a community. Clapping together and singing as the Voices ended their performance with “In that Great Getting Up Morning,” it was the sound of victory.