Episcopal Juneteenth commemorations add to national attention to holiday celebrating freed slaves

By David Paulsen
Posted Jun 19, 2020

[Episcopal News Service] Celebrations of Juneteenth, an American holiday celebrating the emancipation of slaves, are taking on greater resonance this year amid widespread protests against racial injustice after the May 25 killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Church leaders are encouraging Episcopalians to mark Juneteenth by learning about the roots of racism and joining the church’s continuing efforts at racial reconciliation.

Juneteenth, though not a federal holiday, is celebrated on June 19, the anniversary of the day in 1865 when Union Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger and his troops arrived in Galveston, Texas, and announced to slaves there that they had been freed.

The Emancipation Proclamation issued by President Abraham Lincoln had taken effect on Jan. 1, 1863, freeing slaves in the states that had joined the Confederacy, but the order had little effect in the parts of the South still controlled by the Confederacy during the Civil War. And even though the war ended in April 1865, former slaves in Texas didn’t receive news that they were free until two months later. Slavery was officially abolished in December 1865 by ratification of the 13th Amendment.

“On this day we remember the hope … that people heard in the words of the Emancipation Proclamation,” Texas Bishop Andrew Doyle said in a video marking Juneteenth. “We remember how that echoed from the shores of Galveston Island across the South, and how the humble must have sung in that moment, a hope that something had ended and something good and glorious had taken its place.”

The Diocese of Texas’ website features a list of Juneteenth educational resources and events, and the diocese is promoting an online concert at 8 p.m. EDT June 19 by the musical group Sweet Honey in the Rock that is raising money for the Equal Justice Initiative.

In the Diocese of Southern Virginia, Bruton Parish Church in Williamsburg hosted a morning Juneteenth service featuring a reading of the Emancipation Proclamation and singing of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” often known as the black national anthem.

Diocese of California Bishop Marc Andrus, as Presiding Bishop Michael Curry’s representative to the Anglican Communion Environmental Network, coordinated a joint statement for Juneteenth that calls attention to environmental racism, noting the disproportionate effect that climate change has on people of color and indigenous communities.

“Even in the midst of the wealthiest countries, black people bear the brunt of environmental racism. … Take action for climate justice to show #blacklivesmatter,” the statement says. It was signed by Curry and nearly 50 bishops and archbishops from The Episcopal Church and around the Anglican Communion.

All but four U.S. states have an official holiday or observance for Juneteenth. African American communities have long celebrated the day, though its history and meaning have not always been widely recognized by white society. Massachusetts Bishop Alan Gates alluded to this regrettable oversight in his Juneteenth message to the diocese.

“The observance and history of this day have not long been familiar to me. I suspect that may be true for others,” Gates said before explaining the roots of Juneteenth.

Gates also alluded to the killing of Floyd, an unarmed black man, at the hands of white police officers. Floyd’s final moments were captured on video as an officer pressed a knee into his neck for nearly nine minutes.

“The history of violence perpetrated against people of color is not news,” Gates said. “Physical violence and countless other forms of diminishment and dehumanization are not new … and not an abstraction. If this seems like a new conversation to some of us, then it can only be because – like the 19th century citizens of Galveston before us – we have been mired in ignorance (real or feigned), oblivion, obstructionism or wishful thinking.”

Since Floyd’s death, Gates and other Episcopal leaders have been outspoken in renewing their calls for an end to systemic racism, continuing The Episcopal Church’s emphasis on racial healing as embodied by the Becoming Beloved Community framework that was launched in 2017.

“What we realize is we have much work to do,” Doyle said in his Juneteenth video. “On this Juneteenth, as we think and remember this glorious celebration for our black brothers and sisters, especially those living here in Texas, our neighbors, our community members, that we might join with them with loud praises and proclamation, not only for Juneteenth but as a sign that we are with them.”

– David Paulsen is an editor and reporter for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at dpaulsen@episcopalchurch.org.