Inside the Capitol

Sunday, June 14, 2009

6-19 Juneteenth Gaining Universal Popularity

Syndicated Columnist
SANTA FE -- Juneteenth has been a Texas celebration for 144 years. For well over 100 years, few outside of Texas had ever heard of it. The Spell check on my computer still doesn't know the word.
But it is quickly becoming a national celebration. By 2003, twelve states had officially recognized it as a state holiday or observance. New Mexico became the 19th state to officially recognize Juneteenth in 2006. It is now official in 31 states.
For those of you who haven't figured out what we're talking about, June 19, 1865, was the day the last slaves were freed. It happened at Galveston, Texas when Union troops reached the town following the April 9 end of the Civil War.
President Abraham Lincoln had issued his Emancipation Proclamation effective January 1, 1863 but the emancipation of slaves didn't take place in any of the Southern states until Union troops were in the vicinity.
Why did they take so long to get to Texas? The Union gained control of the Mississippi at the Battle of Vicksburg on July 4, 1863. That split the Confederacy and left Texas and other states West of the Mississippi isolated and unimportant.
But when the Union troops finally reached Galveston, the celebration started. It continued yearly on June nineteenth and the words gradually became shortened into Juneteenth.
The celebration expanded throughout Texas and then into other states and became known by additional names, such as Freedom Day and Emancipation Day.
In Texas, it became an official state holiday in 1980. In some states, it is a holiday for workers but in most it just is an official observance. That is the case in New Mexico.
In 2004, state Rep. Sheryl Williams Stapleton, an Albuquerque Democrat, introduced legislation to add New Mexico to the list of states that officially observe Juneteenth. In 2006, she was successful in getting it passed. Celebrations now are held in many communities throughout the state, usually on the third Saturday in June.
Blacks comprise only about two percent of New Mexico's population. The official recognition of the day gives blacks hope that they finally will be recognized as a mainstream part of the state's population.
Juneteenth may not be in many history textbooks yet but there is a growing movement for a National Emancipation Day. Official recognition by over half the states should help that movement along.
The effort hasn't gotten far in Congress, yet, which has had problems with slavery ever since we became a nation. Most members of Congress would rather forget about it and hope the rest of the world does too.
It is much like the debate presently occurring in New Mexico about whether to commemorate the Long Walk taken by the Navajos and Mescalero Apaches to captivity near Fort Sumner in 1863. It opens so many old wounds that some would prefer to not bring it up again.
Other factors possibly holding back national recognition are similar observances such as Black History month in February, Kwanzaa, immediately after Christmas and Martin Luther King Day, which has been made a national holiday.
Somehow Juneteenth deserves some sort of recognition by Congress, if only a simple resolution. It was the first of the African-American celebrations to my knowledge. Although it was extremely localized in its beginnings, it has spread widely, even to foreign countries worldwide.
Googling Juneteenth international reveals a surprising number of Juneteenth observances celebrating freedom in North and South America, Europe, Asia and Africa.
Maybe it is because Juneteenth celebrations are more lighthearted than their counterparts. They have an interesting origin and they come at a good time of year for picnics, barbecues and all types of family outings.
And they are becoming more diverse, like St. Patrick's Day and Cinco de Mayo celebrations.
Fri, 6-19-09

JAY MILLER, 3 La Tusa, Santa Fe, NM 87505
(ph) 982-2723, (fax) 984-0982, (e-mail)



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