The Legacy of Juneteenth | Crooked Media
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June 18, 2021
What A Day
The Legacy of Juneteenth

In This Episode

Juneteenth is coming up this Saturday, and Congress just passed legislation to make it a federal holiday. We talk to UCLA Professor Brenda Stevenson about the historic legacy of June 19th, and why it deserved to become a national holiday now more than ever. Plus, we hear about how some people plan to celebrate this weekend.





Akilah Hughes: It’s Friday, June 18th. I’m Akilah Hughes.


Gideon Resnick: And I’m Gideon Resnick, and this is What A Day, the podcast that is guaranteed water resistant up to depths of 100 meters.


Akilah Hughes: Yeah, that means this summer you can play it in any pool and almost every lake.


Gideon Resnick: WAD would disintegrate though, it taken to the bottom of the ocean.


Akilah Hughes: Yeah, that’s just science.


Gideon Resnick: We don’t make the rules. So this is a very special episode of What A Day. Tomorrow is the day commemorating an important announcement of freedom in this country that took more than two years to get delivered in every corner of America.


[voice clip] The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with the proclamation from the executive of the United States, all slaves are free. [cheers] Let me say that again, all slaves are free. [cheers]


Gideon Resnick: That is the message that union soldiers delivered to the people of Galveston, Texas, on June 19th, 1865, freeing about 250,000 enslaved Black people in the state, one of the last to do so. On today’s show, we are going to tell you part of the history of how this day became a holiday— Juneteenth—why it took decades for it to spread across the country, and the effort to make it a national holiday.


Akilah Hughes: Yeah. So what you heard earlier was a reenactment, of course, but the real event that freed the enslaved in Texas happened more than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation, and nearly a month after the end of the Civil War. That delay was mainly because Texas didn’t officially surrender until June 2nd, 1865. And on top of that, it took time for union forces to slowly make their way through the south to enforce the law.


Gideon Resnick: Galveston was the first stop in Texas by union forces, who spent six more weeks afterwards traveling the state to declare the enslaved free. But over time, that day in Galveston, June 19th became known as Juneteenth or Freedom Day.




Akilah Hughes: Today, it’s a joyous and important celebration in Black communities around the country. At first annual festivals were scattered and mostly throughout the South. When free Black people migrated out of Texas across the country—part of the population shift known as the Great Migration—they carried that tradition with them. But it wasn’t until over a 100 years later, in 1980, that Texas became the first state to recognize Juneteenth as an official holiday. Now nearly every state has a celebration.


[voice clip] Juneteenth is a celebration. As you can see behind me, there is music, there is laughter, there is fun. But over the years, it has evolved to emphasize education and achievement and this year, perhaps more than ever, it’s about change and empowerment.


Gideon Resnick: That is just one example of last year’s festival coverage. But as you heard, the holiday got a renewed focus on activism as well. It came at a time when Americans across the country protested against the police killings of Black people and demanded an end to the systemic racism that is deeply embedded in so many of the country’s institutions to this day. And just this week, Congress voted to finally make it a national holiday.


Akilah Hughes: To tell us more about this movement and Juneteenth’s rise to recognition, we have with us UCLA professor and Nickoll Family Endowed Chair in History, Brenda Stevenson. Professor Stevenson, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us.


Prof. Brenda Stevenson: You’re certainly welcome.


Akilah Hughes: Well, we have a lot to get to, but, you know, we’ll just start here. So there were many different dates in the process of ending slavery, as we all know. The Emancipation Proclamation happened in 1863, for example. That’s the one we all learn about in school. And slaves in Delaware and Kentucky weren’t actually freed until the 13th Amendment, which was ratified in December of 1865. So why did Juneteenth stick as THE day of freedom?


Prof. Brenda Stevenson: You know, history is really interesting because there are many dates that define, for example, the American Revolution. But then whoever sort of promotes, whoever sort of sticks with the particular date, that date oftentimes becomes THE date, you know? And so the same thing has happened with Juneteenth. And because it was celebrated in Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, and then it kind of died away and then it came back again, and it moved with people on the Great Migration. And so when it moved with people in the Great Migration, it spread across the nation. And so while you might have had a few people celebrating in New York on this date, or in California on that date or, you know. And so it became—as it spread with the Great Migration—it became a national event, and a national date of celebration and commemoration.


Gideon Resnick: And you mentioned some of those initial celebrations. Can you talk a little bit about what they actually looked like?


Prof. Brenda Stevenson: When we get to like the first Juneteenth celebrations around Galveston and then later in Houston and Dallas and places like that and New Orleans, etc., these were very large gatherings of people who came together, thanked God—it usually had a Christian element to it—thanked God profusely for their freedom, thanked the military, thanked Abraham Lincoln, you know, etc., gave out a lot of thanks. Then there was also dancing, singing, as I said speeches were given. It was a very, very joyful time. And so sometimes there were small groups of people, only a few households, and sometimes there were literally hundreds, if not thousands of people gathered. It just depended on what the Black population was at the time in that locale. And we have some wonderful images, drawings, early photographs, etc. People wear their Sunday best, you know. Drinks will be served so there was some partying going on. [laughs] You know and so . . . [laughs]


Akilah Hughes: Yeah. I mean, I would I need a drink after all that.


Prof. Brenda Stevenson: Exactly. Praising and parting—that’s what was happening [laughs] at the time.


Akilah Hughes: You mentioned Great Migration as sort of spreading the celebrations throughout the country. How quickly was all of that happening? How quickly was the celebrations sort of spreading across the country?


Prof. Brenda Stevenson: Well, the celebrations, you know, start and stop, in terms of how well they were received also by the larger white community. And you know, and what the status of Black people were in the various communities. We had these times of great repression of Black life during the Jim Crow era, during the period of the early 19th century, particularly around the era of the end of World War I, when there was lots of repression, lynchings, exclusion of Black people, etc. And so the celebrations became smaller and became less public because there was fear of the KKK, other white terrorist organizations that would punish Black people for celebrating their freedom and for celebrating their rights. And there was a fear, of course, of losing your job if you were sharecropping and the person who owned the land didn’t approve of what you were doing. So they became smaller during the time period. Now the Great Migration begins, of course, they’re migrations that begin almost all right after slavery in the 1870’s, people are moving towards the West, what we call the exodusters. And then again around the periods of World War I and World War II, as Black people are moving to the cities to work in industries, defense industry, etc.. So it’s really, you know, in those time periods that you see the spreading of it. Not only up the Mississippi River towards places like Chicago and St. Louis, etc., but also spreading towards the West, towards California—you have large migrations of people from Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, who are moving to California, and bringing those kinds of celebrations with them too


Akilah Hughes: And in some cases, you know, people’s awareness of what Juneteenth actually is, and what it’s about, is a little spotty. And, you know, I personally didn’t learn about Juneteenth until college. And I grew up in Kentucky where we had those Texas history books [laughs] where they, you know, thought that benevolent slavery was a real thing. So why do you think that there has been sort of this lack of passing it down in some instances, even in Black communities? Or just lack of awareness about Juneteenth?


Prof. Brenda Stevenson: Well, you’re right when you say that the way in which African-American history is recorded and taught in this country is spotty at the very best. And so, and then it depends on where you are. If you grew up in Kentucky, then it’s, you know, everything that had to do with Black people, had to do with how it related to Kentucky history. I grew up in Virginia and as far as Virginians are concerned, there was no history except for Virginia history.


Akilah Hughes: Right. Yeah.


Prof. Brenda Stevenson: [laughs] So, you know, if it didn’t happen there, if it didn’t start there, then you basically didn’t cover it. And so it’s with this kind of national reckoning of the absence of Black history from textbooks, from the public narrative, etc., that we have more and more people learning about Juneteenth, learning about Tulsa, learning about all the other things that happened in our history that we didn’t know about. And so you’re absolutely correct. It’s just the way in which Black history is taught. It just depends on what your own personal histories and the history of the locale that you are in, and the history of Black history in this country.


Akilah Hughes: Yeah. Amen.  You’re right, you’re right.


Gideon Resnick: We’re going to continue more of this conversation with UCLA’s Brenda Stevenson about the history of Juneteenth in just a moment, with the effort to make it a national holiday. We’ll be right back after some ads.


[ad break]


Akilah Hughes: Now let’s get back to our conversation with UCLA Professor Brenda Stevenson.


Akilah Hughes: Professor Stevenson, why do you think it was important for Congress to finally recognize Juneteenth now by voting to make it a federal holiday?


Prof. Brenda Stevenson: Well, I think the more holidays we have to celebrate different peoples in our country and different heritages, the better. Because I think one of the things we don’t do is that we don’t see that we are a diverse country, and that every group of people has contributed to the greatness, or not, of this nation. I do think that Black people in particular and other people who have been marginalized within this country really want to see recognition of what we’ve contributed and what we’ve gone through and, you know, we stuck it out in this country and survived and thrived. But we also want to see more than that. I think we’re at this point, particularly after last year and the ways in which the protests with regard to inequalities, particularly in the law, have spread throughout the country and the world. We want—actually holidays are nice but I think people also want to see laws, they want to see that George Floyd policing law passed. You know, they want to see equality with regard to housing, with regard to health care, education, etc. They want an end to white terrorism against communities of color. I mean, this is what people really want. And a holiday gets you the recognition that Black people have suffered and that Black people have overcome this suffering. But we’re still overcoming it. And the laws are what we need. The laws and the enforcement of the laws, and the equality of, enforcement of equality is what we need to actually move past that suffering. And so I think a lot of people, you know, Black people, other communities of color, poor people, disabled people, LGBTQIA people, etc—everybody wants to feel like we’re equal within our society. And that’s much more important than a holiday. Although, again, I enjoy holidays very much. I’m going to have to work through all of them but nonetheless, I like to see the other people outside having fun. [laughs]


Akilah Hughes: Yeah, absolutely. I like to wave at them from my window.


Prof. Brenda Stevenson: [laughs] Right.


Gideon Resnick: Right, right.


Akilah Hughes: Y’all are really doing it out there. Well, you know, thank you so much for bringing up the past year with the racial reckoning that was sort of spawned by the murder of George Floyd. And we all saw the protests. We were all involved in the protests. But what role does the celebration and education about Juneteenth play in that activism? Can you speak to that a little bit further?


Prof. Brenda Stevenson: Well, I think it speaks greatly to that activism, because, first of all, it reminds you that Black people were, we were enslaved for over 200 years. And with that enslavement, it should also remind people that we helped to build this country. You know, every economy that was associated with the development of the United States of America—whether or not you’re talking about agriculture, whether or not you’re talking about shipping—


Akilah Hughes: textiles.


Prof. Brenda Stevenson: —whether or not you’re talking about banking, taxation—all of that is was really based on Black labor or Black bodies, with the skill Black people, etc. Secondly, it reminds people what had to be done. Actually, the hold on Black people as enslaved people was so tight that a bloody war, you know, one of the bloodiest wars in American history up into the 20th century, had to be fought to pull some of the ties out of that placing the Black people in this position of enslavement. And so I think it also reminds us that the work is not done. You know, just like we can’t really settle on a specific date of emancipation. OK? You know, the work is not done yet. And I think it’s really wonderful in a way that we can’t specifically, we can’t tie down that date because it’s not finished yet.


Akilah Hughes: Right.


Prof. Brenda Stevenson: You know, it really is not finished yet. I mean, whether or not you’re looking at the 13th, 14th, the 15th Amendment, you know, whether or not you’re looking at the 19th Amendment for women getting the vote, federal vote, etc, though, or the civil rights laws of the 60s, etc. It’s not finished yet. And so to have a specific date of emancipation is probably not appropriate.


Akilah Hughes: Yeah, that’s right.


Gideon Resnick: And to that end, what lessons from past Juneteenth celebrations should be sort of keep in mind going forward, and to you, what does that mean you think celebration should actually look like this year?


Prof. Brenda Stevenson: Well, I think celebration should include celebration, joy, recognizing the contributions that Black people have made to this country, recognizing the allies shift that they had, because what led to emancipation was the abolitionist movement, and the abolitionist movement, although not pure, but did bring large numbers of white persons into this struggle for emancipation, for a Black emancipation, OK?  I also hope that people will take an opportunity to realize the contributions that Black people have made, and the suffering that Black people have, that we have endured during this time period. And the Black people are committed to the project of equality, and that our fight for equality has helped to liberate other people. All right? So we look at the civil rights movement, we look at the change in the immigration laws, we look at the ways in which women had to be included as equals within, you know, the marketplace—all those kinds of things. So, you know, getting, liberating one group does not exclude the other group. OK? It should not and it usually does not. And so I think those kinds of things that we really need to understand when we look at Juneteenth. That we, we’re talking about, you know, four million people who gained a kind of freedom at that time. It’s a project that’s not finished. It came at great sacrifice, not only to Black people, but also to the nation at large with the large numbers of death and destruction of property, etc, etc. And it was worth it. And it’s still worth it to make the sacrifices—not death, I don’t believe anybody should have to die for their freedom—but, you know, recognize that this has been a long, long haul and lots of people have sacrificed their lives and their careers and their peace of mind to try to get us to where we are. We cannot turn back.


Akilah Hughes: Well, Professor Stevenson, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us. That was excellent.


Gideon Resnick: Yeah. Thank you so much.


Prof. Brenda Stevenson: Wonderful, wonderful. Thank you so much for thinking of me.


Akilah Hughes: Now that we’ve talked about the history of Juneteenth, its legacy and more, let’s find out how people are actually going to be celebrating this year.


Gideon Resnick: Yeah, we had some listeners let us know what they are going to get up to this weekend.


[D. Mitchell] Hi, this is Deoberi Mitchell from Dallas, Texas. And I will be celebrating Juneteenth in Joppee, one of the last remaining freedman’s town settled by formerly-enslaved men and women. And coincidentally, Joppee also held the first Juneteenth festivities in Dallas. Happy Juneteenth.


[K. Phillip] Peace and love, everyone. My name is Kadeem Phillip. I’m an artist from Brooklyn, New York. And for Juneteenth this year, I’ll be hosting my latest art gallery entitled “Colors.” Colors is a series dedicated to appreciating women. It was sparked by the women that played a major important role in my life. And it’s a portrait series basically showing my love, appreciation for those who have inspired me, motivated me, and really taught me so much about life.


[Danielle] Hi, my name is Danielle. I’m from Texas. And for Juneteenth, I’m going to be watching Black content creators and streamers that I enjoy.


[Darren] I’m Darren Cottingham and I’m from the South and currently reside in Los Angeles, California. I’m going to be bringing in Juneteenth with close friends, great food, great drinks, and just really great music. I do this every year where me and some of my closest friends, we do a potluck. I’ll bring the fried green tomatoes, the mac and cheese, and we just enjoy each other’s company and we celebrate our freedom.


Akilah Hughes: That sounds like a lot of fun. Specifically the one with the mac and cheese. I wish I was invited to that cookout, but I’m going to try to make my own. Yeah. It sounds like it’s going to be lit.


Gideon Resnick: Yeah. Amazing weekends all around. Really happy people are getting together safely. It sounds awesome.


Akilah Hughes: Well, one more thing before we go, there’s more you can find out about Juneteenth by checking out other Crooked pods. Like on Hysteria, Congresswoman Gwen Moore talks about the effort in Congress to make Juneteenth a national holiday. Listen now, wherever you get your podcasts.


Gideon Resnick: That is all for today. If you’d like to show, make sure you subscribe, leave a review, and tell your friends to listen.


Akilah Hughes: And if you’re into reading, and not just corporations acknowledging this holiday 150 years too late like me, What A Day is also a nightly newsletter. Check it out and subscribe at


Gideon Resnick: We’ll be taking a break on Monday. So talk to you again next Tuesday.


Akilah Hughes: I’m Akilah Hughes.


Gideon Resnick: I’m Gideon Resnick.


[together] And have a happy Juneteenth!


Akilah Hughes: Please make that mac and cheese. And potato salad.


Gideon Resnick: All sounds great. I will eat all of it, if you offer.


Akilah Hughes: You’re invited to the cookout, Gideon.


Gideon Resnick: Thank you.


Akilah Hughes: What A Day is a production of Crooked Media.


Gideon Resnick: It’s recorded and mixed by Charlotte Landes.


Akilah Hughes: Sonia Htoon and Jazzi Marine are our associate producers.


Gideon Resnick: Our head writer, is Jon Millstein, and our executive producers are Leo Duran, Akilah Hughes and me.


Akilah Hughes: Our theme music is by Colin Gilliard and Kashaka.