Juneteenth crossing nation

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WASHINGTON - Juneteenth is busting out all over.

Celebrated in Texas for more than a century, June 19 is gaining global significance as independence day for African-Americans. It's now an official holiday in seven other states from Florida to Idaho. The holiday is not official in Maryland.

More than 300 communities nationwide have Juneteenth celebrations scheduled today.

In Washington, there will be gospel and jazz concerts and a rally at the Capitol. In Atlanta, there will be a barbecue on Auburn Avenue, the famed boulevard of the civil rights movement.

There's a Blues and Sweet Potato Pie fest in Pompano Beach, Fla., and a June-Bug Car Parade on Daytona Beach, and a "Forever Free" celebration at the Westley Community Center in Dayton, Ohio.

In the Baltimore area, celebrations have been going on since last weekend, and an African-American Family Festival is scheduled in Druid Hill Park at the end of the month.

Folks will observe Juneteenth with a soul food tasting at Kadena Air Base in Japan and with soul music from "Downtown" Ambrose Brown at the U.S. Naval Air Base in La Maddelena, Italy.

Juneteenth is the oldest known celebration of the ending of slavery, its adherents claim.

"It's America's second Independence Day," says John Thompson, president of Juneteenth America, based in Ontario, Calif.

On June 19, 1865, Union soldiers led by Major Gen. Gordon Granger landed at Galveston, Texas. These soldiers in blue brought the news that the Civil War had ended and that all the slaves of the South were now free.

The revelation came more than two years after President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation. Officially, slaves had been freed when it went into effect Jan. 1, 1863, but a war would have to be won before Union troops could come to enforce Lincoln's order.

Advocates are petitioning President Bush to make Juneteenth a National Holiday Observance, like Flag Day.

This designation would not burden taxpayers with another paid federal holiday, says Ronald Myers, chairman of the campaign for a Juneteenth Independence Day. He says the observance is needed "by Americans of African descent who were not freed on the Fourth of July" in 1776, when the Declaration of Independence was adopted by the Continental Congress.

While embracing Juneteenth, Bush has not directly addressed the holiday issue.

The president has noted that Juneteenth has its roots in Texas but is now observed around the country, says Scott McClellan, a White House spokesman. In celebrating Juneteenth, Bush has said he "encourages all Americans to reaffirm their commitment to achieving equal justice and opportunity for all citizens."

Millions of Americans of all racial backgrounds have barely even heard of Juneteenth, much less of any clamor for a national observance.

So some advocates believe the first order of business should be spreading the word on Juneteenth.

Creating a national holiday observance "is not that important. June 19th is already ours. We already claim it," says Lula Briggs Galloway, president of the National Association of Juneteenth Lineage, which has its headquarters in Saginaw, Mich.

"Education is more important," says Galloway, whose group is not part of the national effort to establish a Juneteenth holiday. "There are people who still do not know what it is. We're working to get it into the school curriculum. We need to educate children and their parents about Juneteenth."

The document that General Granger read in Galveston was called General Order No. 3. It began:

"The people of Texas are informed that in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and free laborer."

The announcement inspired jubilation among black residents of the Lone Star State. Thereafter, they and their descendents celebrated "Juneteenth" as the day freedom finally came to Texas. Many would make an annual pilgrimage to Galveston for the observance. Over the years, though, festivities sprang up in communities across the state.

On Jan. 1, 1980, Juneteenth became an official state holiday in Texas, largely through the efforts of Al Edwards, an African-American state legislator. But Edwards and other activists believed that Juneteenth was too important to confine to Texas.

"Migration, mostly black people in Texas moving to Northern states, carried the message of Juneteenth across the nation," said James Carter of Arlington, Texas, the state coordinator in the movement to make Juneteenth a national holiday observance. "It is the real freedom day for people of African-American descent."

When Jeannie Blue moved from Houston to St. Petersburg, Fla., she was dismayed to find "there was no Juneteenth. I missed it."

So she helped organize a local Juneteenth observance that this week will mark its 11th consecutive year, and she helped push through state recognition of the holiday.

A national Juneteenth is needed "to show the significance that legal slavery had on the development of American society," she said. "And it is needed to pay honor to our ancestors."

"Juneteenth is already a big holiday here in Atlanta for some of us," said Felton Eaddy, an arts educator and leader of the Georgia campaign for a national holiday observance.

Usually, "it's a potluck event featuring short speeches by historians, readings, story telling, music, poetry and a showing of artists' slides," he said.

However, this year there will also be discussion "of our campaign to obtain official holiday status for Juneteenth in the state of Georgia."

"I've been involved in Juneteenth all my life. I grew up in California but my parents are from Texas," said Galloway, the Michigan activist who said she organized the first national Juneteenth association. "I saw a need for a national cohesiveness with Juneteenth groups across the country."

The groups lobbied for passage of a congressional bill to recognize the significance of Juneteenth. It was introduced in the House by Reps. J.C. Watts, an Oklahoma Republican, and Sanford D. Bishop Jr., a Georgia Democrat, she said, and in the Senate by then-Majority Leader Trent Lott, a Mississippi Republican, and then-Minority Leader Tom Daschle, a South Dakota Democrat. The legislation passed easily in 1997.

The Juneteenth movement has always enjoyed bipartisan support, said Myers, the Mississippi physician and preacher who heads the drive for a Juneteenth national holiday observance.

Republican backers have ranged from House Majority Leader Dick Armey of Texas to Gov. Dirk Kempthorne of Idaho, who signed that state's Juneteenth observance law.

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