As a D/E/I educator, I get contacted by many primarily or all-white churches, more each year, asking me to help them plan for Juneteeth observances, so I will discuss it here in order to help equip such communities to honor this important day in ways that are honest, holistic, and respectful.
Let’s start with a discussion of what Juneteenth actually is. Juneteenth is not the day that slavery was abolished in Texas. It is not the day that enslaved persons in Texas or in Galveston learned of their liberation (this myth was a calculated bit of history rewriting attempting to cast Black Americans as ignorant and happy to go back to living as slaves that became widespread during the many racially motivated riots and massacres of the 1920s). But Juneteeth is a “holiday” with a complex meaning, one that is anointed in blood, and that needs to be handled with care.
A bit of background information: on January 1, 1863, Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, declaring that all enslaved persons in the Confederate States of America were freed (with some notable exceptions, including multiple border states and much of Indian Territory). Not surprisingly, many slave owners were less than enthused and began moving to southern Texas en masse, knowing that the Union troops enforcing the proclamation would take time to travel southward. Galveston Island in particular was thought to be a refuge where slave owners would be allowed to continue largely undisturbed, and where the fortifications could be used to protect themselves from being forced to free their slaves.
Their predictions held true until April of 1865, when General Lee finally surrendered and chaos erupted. Many troops still refused to surrender, the governor fled to Mexico, angry slave owners looted the treasury, and the situation became very bleak for enslaved persons in southern Texas, especially on Galveston Island. Though some successfully fled to Mexico and others staged strikes, owners began summarily executing their slaves, and even the more than 2,000 troops that had been sent in to restore order couldn’t make them stop. Finally, Major General Granger arrived and an organized effort to actually enforce the law began with the repeated reading/posting of General Order No. 3 in strategic locations across Galveston on June 19th.
So now that we know what Juneteenth actually is, how might churches with mostly or all non-Black members authentically commemorate this day? First and foremost, they can listen to local Black folks. If there are any in the congregation, what would they like to see? If there aren’t any in the congregation, are there any in leadership roles in the local synod, presbytery, or other adjudicatory body? If so, please let them be your guide. They know your community far better than I do and can speak with deep understanding to what the Black folks there need (please hear that this is not an invitation to “re-educate” Black folks who may have been taught false information about Juneteenth. There are many capable and dedicated Black historians who are doing just that. Please just ensure that the non-Black folks you minister to and with know the truth).
If there are not Black leaders in your congregation or local adjudicatory body, here are some guiding principles that I often share:
- Know that Black people have lots of mixed feelings about Juneteenth becoming a federal holiday. Black folks have lots of practice at holding seemingly opposing truths in tension, and it is possible to honor Opal Lee and others who sacrificed so much to bring attention to this important day while also knowing that giving non-Black folks a day off of work is unlikely to make us safer as we celebrate.
- Consider Juneteenth to be a day of celebration for Black folks and a day of education, remembrance, mourning, and service for non-Black folks, especially white people.
- Understand the crucial role churches held in early Juneteenth celebrations. Though the first recorded celebration was one year after the event, almost immediately thereafter, multiple laws were enacted preventing former slaves from gathering on this day. So churches (and waterways) became important places of refuge where celebrations could be held. If you live somewhere that Black folks still have limited access to places where they can safely gather, offer your space to them.
- Honor the jubilee themes that have been a major part of the holiday since its inception. Bible passages about jubilee were read aloud, scholarships and monies for people in need were dispersed, and baptisms were reaffirmed. These are all things non-Black folks can do that do not necessitate appropriating African American culture.
- Only attend Juneteenth celebrations if you are specifically invited by Black folks, and when you attend, be of service if you can. Can you donate towards food costs? Help with parking or be available to assist disabled folks? Help take care of cleanup, so Black folks can go home and rest? Whatever you do, de-center yourself and resist the common notions that Black folks are there to serve you, entertain you, or provide you with a free education.