Juneteenth - How Would You Celebrate Your Freedom?

Juneteenth: How Would You Celebrate Your Freedom?
Guest Blog By B.J. Janney

What is “Juneteenth”?

Simply put, Juneteenth is the longest standing tradition commemorating the end of slavery in the United States. It’s a holiday many within the black community have celebrated for decades, but, for many of us, a holiday we’re hearing about for the first time. Its origins date back to June 19, 1865 in Galveston, Texas, honoring this date as the African American Emancipation Day.

Historical Context

On the heels of the Civil War, roughly 70 days after the war had officially ended, and 2.5 years after Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation (1863), slavery was still being practiced in Texas. In fact, many slave owners migrated to Texas as sort of a safe-haven with limited Union Army control. Oftentimes when looking back in history, or when we’re taught in school, we survey the major events: the ending of the Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation, etc., and we sometimes assume the following: proclamation is made, things change, all is well. 

However, for anyone who has studied history--- or when you simply take the time to dig a little deeper below the surface--- you know this is almost never the case. This is the context we find our African American brothers and sisters in during the aftermath of the Civil War, perhaps experiencing what we’ve come to term “the already and the not yet”.  Slavery was declared to have ended, but two and a half years passed, the war was now over, but the aftermath of hundreds of years of chattel slavery still have many wondering, “Will anything change?”  

On June 19, 1865, General Gordon Granger, along with 2,000 troops of the Union Army arrived in Galveston bearing the news under General Order No. 3 that all (250,000+) slaves in Texas were free. Despite the liberating news that finally arrived, many slave owners withheld the news until harvest, or continued the status quo until receiving formal visits from authorities. Or worse, freed slaves became “hired workers,” resulting in little to no change in master/slave relationship. Despite the ensuing violence, confusion, and terror, a glimmer of hope burned brightly. The declaration itself for many was enough reason to celebrate with rejoicing and jubilee. Celebrating what was finally accomplished while facing the many challenges that lay ahead for a nation still divided.

It is in this context, combining June and Nineteenth, that Juneteenth was born. Celebrations, much like the 4th of July, were enjoyed beginning as early as 1866. Many sought to reconnect with families, start fresh, and begin living with a renewed sense of hope and dignity.   Grassroots gatherings, barbecues, and the like gave way to parades and community festivals. Distressingly however, in the years that followed, the period of Reconstruction (1863-1877) and progress for African Americans gave way to an era of terror and violence. 

By 1877, following the presidential election of Rutherford B. Hayes, the power in many southern states returned to the hands of former slaveholders, giving birth to the “Black Codes” and the Jim Crow south. And yet, this is what makes the celebration of Juneteenth quite remarkable. Despite the deterioration of momentum and change obtained during Reconstruction, the declaration of all men being free was reason enough to hope, a reason to celebrate, even if the reflections of this promise had all but faded.


In many ways, Juneteenth offers America perhaps a truer, or minimally, a second Independence Day, one that all Americans, black or white, can come together to celebrate and remember as a day in which all men were declared free. Free from tyrannical reign, free from that which strips humanity and dignity away from another made in the Image of God.  

As one of our brothers puts it, “As a Black American, your interaction with American culture, holidays and traditions can sometimes be different than other Americans. The traditional '4th of July' Independence Day can be troubling for some Black Americans to celebrate knowing the reality of Black Americans in 1776. So, this time of year can bring forth a mix of emotions. There is pain in remembering that nearly 100 years after the Nation proclaimed its own freedom, some Americans were not free. However, there is also hope, hope that America is moving closer to a future where the idea that all men were created equal will be experienced as a reality” (Reggie Smith, R.E.R. Committee, The Town Church).

So what does this mean for the church? 

At the Town Church, something we’re promised to receive every week is the Gospel. No matter what book of the Bible is being preached, Jesus will always be at the center. If such is the case with the preached Word, then such should be the case with our lives. Looking for every opportunity to see Christ in all that we see and do. 

For the Christian, we have an opportunity to look at past events with clarity and apply the Gospel. We have the freedom in humility to acknowledge the “house” (our country) we’ve inherited for all its good things AND all its bad things, to paraphrase Isabel Wilkerson’s analogy. As with an old house, we weren’t there when the foundation was laid, when the walls went up, when the weather began to crack and rot materials, etc. But, they are our problems to deal with now.  

We have the opportunity to take what’s been given to us and, through a Gospel lense, make the necessary “repairs”. Repairs not for America’s sake alone, but because there is a greater kingdom in which we live: The Kingdom of God. 

Oftentimes the church can be lulled to sleep knowing there is a greater kingdom coming, and while that is true, we minimize the reality that Jesus continually preached the kingdom is here. For anyone who has been a slave to sin and is now alive in Christ, we can look into social justice issues with clarity, because they are not only social issues, but Gospel issues.

What you can do to recognize/honor/celebrate Juneteenth:

I want to offer a few ways to begin by using Jemar Tisby’s model of the ARC of Racial Justice found in his book How to Fight Racism (Tisby, 2021) . Similar to the head-hands-heart model, ARC stands for Awareness, Relationships, and Commitment (Tisby, p.5). The beginning portion of this blog starts with awareness; of history, of the Imago Dei principle, even thinking about your own personal narrative. 

Second, Tisby writes, “all racial justice is relational”. He writes that change often comes through relationships, which allow us to develop a burden for people most affected by unjust systems or ideas. Commitment then, is the action. While awareness and relationships involve actions, commitment is the “hands” aspect. This is not an exhaustive list by any means but a way for us to consider how we can fulfill the Biblical call to love one another through a day like Juneteenth:

  • Celebrate! What would it look like for us to celebrate Juneteenth on the scale of 4th of July?
  • Worship and Lamentation: The Gospel invites us into the story of redemption as God weaves our stories into His marvelous tapestry of salvation. Juneteenth offers another opportunity to worship God for his amazing work. To celebrate what progress has been made and to thank Him for His steadfast love. Along with praising God, we can in the same breath lament. We can cry out to God for injustice and sin still taking place in a fallen world. To cry out in longing for the “not yet” to come. Oftentimes we try to separate these two aspects, but we find in the Psalms that they are closely knit together. (Psalm 42). Celebrating with our brothers and sisters of color, while also lamenting what is undone and longing for the change that better reflects the kingdom of God, is an opportunity to build relationships through worship and prayer. 
  • Consider and think deeply on the wounds of slavery and racism. Study true African American History. Tell the Juneteenth story to your families.
  • Become an advocate. As Tisby writes, we carry one another's burdens when we enter into relationship. Have a courageous conversation with a brother or sister of another skin color.  You don’t know what it’s like to be Black in America? Ask someone who is! 
  • Go somewhere you wouldn’t normally go. Build relationships. Go to a different barber shop, play pickup games in another neighborhood, plan to spend time in place with folks who are not like you.

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