The Full Story

The Juneteenth Story in Memphis

Celebrating Juneteenth is a staple in Memphis, a city of good abode overlooking the Mississippi River,
where revelers and celebrants converge in a park setting to celebrate the end of slavery in the United
States.

 

On June 17, 2021, President Joe Biden signed into law the groundbreaking Senate Bill 475, i.e., the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act, which observes June 19 as a federal holiday in the United States. It is now one of 11 federal holidays commemorating June 19, 1865, when Union Army Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger rode into Galveston, Texas, and announced that all enslaved people were free.

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It was a herculean effort on the part of today’s Juneteenth activists, petitioners, formidable leaders and the Black Lives Matter Movement that prompted Congress to act and President Biden to affix his signature following a House vote of 415-14. It was a day of jubilee for African Americans. Two days later, the new the federal holiday was observed.
 

While Juneteenth has been observed in Memphis for nearly three decades, the Memphis Juneteenth Festival began in Historic Douglass Park when it was named The Juneteenth Freedom & Heritage Festival, the brainchild of Glynn Johns-Reed, who founded the festival in 1993. As executive director, Johns-Reed promoted the festival, created awareness, and educated celebrants on the importance of Juneteenth and its significance to African American culture.


In 2011, Reed turned over the reins of leadership to Telisa Franklin, an entrepreneur, and businesswoman who had been carving out a niche in the community as a formidable leader and community servant. With the Juneteenth festival in capable hands, Franklin opted to move the festival from Historic Douglass Park in 2014 to Historic Robert R. Church Park on “World Famous” Beale Street.
 

Franklin changed the location and the name to The Juneteenth Urban Musical Festival to increase the festival's appeal to a wider audience and to strengthen its brand. While still creating awareness, educating celebrants and promoting the festival, the festival’s appeal and historic significance did not change and continued to feature a slate of musical acts, food vendors, entertainment, exhibits, a kid’s zone, and more.
 

In 2021, Franklin moved The Juneteenth Urban Musical Festival from the Historic Robert R. Church Park to Health Sciences Park at the intersection of Madison Avenue and South Dunlap Street in the medical district. The move was conducive to increasing attendance from a diverse community of celebrants, which, again, prompted a name change: The Memphis Juneteenth Festival.

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The park was originally named for the infamous Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest, a slave owner and trader and early Ku Klux Klan leader. Forrest was interred with his wife beneath a bronze statue of himself astride a horse on a pedestal before the statue and pedestal were removed and their
bodies exhumed and moved to a museum hundreds of miles away.

 

The Memphis Juneteenth Festival is held each year in Memphis during Father’s Day weekend for three fun-filled days and complete with eclectic music (soul, R&B, gospel, hip-hop and other genres), choirs, entertainment, arts & crafts, food vendors (funnel cakes, turkey legs, barbeque, snow cones, hot dogs, burgers, chicken, etc.), majorettes, dancers, steppers, cheerleaders, a car and bike show, activities for seniors and kids, and more.
 

Juneteenth is one of Memphis’ longest-running African American celebrations for children, adults and entire families frolicking each year to the park to commemorate the end of slavery after President Lincoln signed into law the Emancipation Proclamation. The newly minted holiday now affirms the importance of Juneteenth and its cultural significance to African Americans and the broader community.

 

In addition to the festival’s significance and nationwide acceptance via the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act, festivalgoers can look forward to the annual Juneteenth Career and Health Fair Expo, the Memphis Juneteenth Lifetime Achievement Awards, the Juneteenth Ultimate Dance Showdown, Food Truck Sunday, and Praise Fest at Juneteenth.
 

The Memphis Juneteenth Festival draws anywhere from 30,000 to 40,000 celebrants each year, including tourists that leisurely stroll the park grounds to partake of African American culture, food, entertainment, and the overall significance of Juneteenth. Some of them learn for the first time why it is important for African Americans to commemorate the end of slavery in the United States.
 

Freeing the last African-American slaves in Galveston, Texas, on June 19, 1865, was the beginning of an annual celebration across the country. One hundred and fifty-six years later, June 19 is now a federal holiday in the United States. The Memphis Juneteenth Festival had been out-front since its founding and continues to be a staple in the Memphis community.

                      Juneteenth's History                      

Juneteenth is the oldest nationally celebrated commemoration of the ending of slavery in the United States.  Dating back to 1865, it was on June 19th that the Union soldiers, led by Major General Gordon Granger, landed at Galveston, Texas with news that the war had ended and that the enslaved were now free. Note that this was two and a half years after President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation - which had become official January 1, 1863. The Emancipation Proclamation had little impact on the Texans due to the minimal number of Union troops to enforce the new Executive Order. However, with the surrender of General Lee in April of 1865, and the arrival of General Granger’s regiment, the forces were finally strong enough to influence and overcome the resistance.

Later attempts to explain this two and a half year delay in the receipt of this important news have yielded several versions that have been handed down through the years. Often told is the story of a messenger who was murdered on his way to Texas with the news of freedom. Another is that the news was deliberately withheld by the enslavers to maintain the labor force on the plantations. And still another is that federal troops actually waited for the slave owners to reap the benefits of one last cotton harvest before going to Texas to enforce the Emancipation Proclamation. All of which, or none of these versions could be true. Certainly, for some, President Lincoln's authority over the rebellious states was in question.  Whatever the reasons, conditions in Texas remained status quo well beyond what was statutory.

General Order Number 3

One of General Granger’s first orders of business was to read to the people of Texas, General Order Number 3 which began most significantly with:

"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 hired laborer."

The reactions to this profound news ranged from pure shock to immediate jubilation. While many lingered to learn of this new employer to employee relationship, many left before these offers were completely off the lips of their former 'masters' - attesting to the varying conditions on the plantations and the realization of freedom. Even with nowhere to go, many felt that leaving the plantation would be their first grasp of freedom. North was a logical destination and for many it represented true freedom, while the desire to reach family members in neighboring states drove some into Louisiana, Arkansas and Oklahoma. Settling into these new areas as free men and women brought on new realities and the challenges of establishing a heretofore non-existent status for black people in America. Recounting the memories of that great day in June of 1865 and its festivities would serve as motivation as well as a release from the growing pressures encountered in their new territories. The celebration of June 19th was coined "Juneteenth" and grew with more participation from descendants. The Juneteenth celebration was a time for reassuring each other, for praying and for gathering remaining family members. Juneteenth continued to be highly revered in Texas decades later, with many former slaves and descendants making an annual pilgrimage back to Galveston on this date.

Juneteenth Festivities & Food

A range of activities were provided to entertain the masses, many of which continue in tradition today. Rodeos, fishing, barbecuing and baseball are just a few of the typical Juneteenth activities you may witness today. Juneteenth almost always focused on education and self improvement. Thus, often guest speakers are brought in and the elders are called upon to recount the events of the past. Prayer services were also a major part of these celebrations. 

Certain foods became popular and subsequently synonymous with Juneteenth celebrations such as strawberry soda-pop. More traditional and just as popular was the barbecuing, through which Juneteenth participants could share in the spirit and aromas that their ancestors - the newly emancipated African Americans, would have experienced during their ceremonies. Hence, the barbecue pit is often established as the center of attention at Juneteenth celebrations.

Food was abundant because everyone prepared a special dish. Meats such as lamb, pork and beef which were not available everyday were brought on this special occasion. A true Juneteenth celebrations left visitors well satisfied and with enough conversation to last until the next.

Dress was also an important element in early Juneteenth customs and is often still taken seriously, particularly by the direct descendants who can make the connection to this tradition's roots. During slavery there were laws on the books in many areas that prohibited or limited the dressing of the enslaved. During the initial days of the emancipation celebrations, there are accounts of former slaves tossing their ragged garments into the creeks and rivers and adorning themselves with clothing taken from the plantations belonging to their former 'masters'.

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Juneteenth & Society

In the early years, little interest existed outside the African American community in participation in the celebrations. In some cases, there was outwardly exhibited resistance by barring the use of public property for the festivities. Most of the festivities found themselves out in rural areas around rivers and creeks that could provide for additional activities such as fishing, horseback riding and barbecues. Often church grounds were the site for such activities. Eventually, as African Americans became land owners, land was donated and dedicated for these festivities. One of the earliest documented land purchases in the name of Juneteenth was organized by Rev. Jack Yates. This fund-raising effort yielded $1000 and made possible the purchase of Emancipation Park in Houston, Texas. In Mexia, the local Juneteenth organization purchased Booker T. Washington Park, which had become the Juneteenth celebration site in 1898. There are accounts of Juneteenth activities being interrupted and halted by white landowners demanding that their laborers return to work. However, it seems most allowed their workers the day off and some even made donations of food and money. For decades these annual celebrations flourished, growing continuously with each passing year. In Booker T. Washington Park, as many as 20,000 African Americans once attended during the course of a week, making the celebration one of the state’s largest.

Juneteenth
Celebrations Decline

Economic and cultural forces led to a decline in Juneteenth activities and participants beginning in the early 1900’s. Classroom and textbook education in lieu of traditional home and family-taught practices stifled the interest of the youth due to less emphasis and detail on the lives of former slaves. Classroom textbooks proclaimed Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863 as the date signaling the ending of slavery - and mentioned little or nothing of the impact of General Granger’s arrival on June 19th.

The Depression forced many people off the farms and into the cities to find work. In these urban environments, employers were less eager to grant leaves to celebrate this date. Thus, unless June 19th fell on a weekend or holiday, there were very few participants available. July 4th was already the established Independence holiday and a rise in patriotism steered more toward this celebration.

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Resurgence

The Civil Rights movement of the 50’s and 60’s yielded both positive and negative results for the Juneteenth celebrations. While it pulled many of the African American youth away and into the struggle for racial equality, many linked these struggles to the historical struggles of their ancestors. This was evidenced by student demonstrators involved in the Atlanta civil rights campaign in the early 1960’s, who wore Juneteenth freedom buttons. Again in 1968, Juneteenth received another strong resurgence through the Poor Peoples March to Washington D.C. Rev. Ralph Abernathy’s call for people of all races, creeds, economic levels and professions to come to Washington to show support for the poor. Many of these attendees returned home and initiated Juneteenth celebrations in areas previously absent of such activities. In fact, two of the largest Juneteenth celebrations founded after this March are now held in Milwaukee and Minneapolis.

Texas Blazes the Trail

On January 1, 1980, Juneteenth became an official state holiday through the efforts of Al Edwards, an African American state legislator. The successful passage of this bill marked Juneteenth as the first emancipation celebration granted official state recognition.  Edwards has since actively sought to spread the observance of Juneteenth all across America.

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