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Juneteenth Century Photography Essay

My first plate at Mama Sugar's Juneteenth BBQ was loaded with a smoked pork chop and a rib on a bed of beans, cabbage, and green beans. My second plate was a sausage link and a chicken thigh with black-eyed peas and collard greens. Sadly, I missed out on the banana pudding and had to make do with the cookie cake.

The food is one reason why the Juneteenth BBQ at Mama Sugar's little horse ranch just south of Pearland on Trammel-Fresno Road is one my favorite parties of the year. This is where I first met photographer O Rufus Lovett while we were both working on an article for Gourmet magazine in 2006.

The state holiday known as Juneteenth (short for June 19th) commemorates the anniversary of June 19, 1865, when Union general Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas and read a proclamation announced the freeing of the slaves. The slaves had actually been free for over a year, but nobody told them until Granger showed up with troops to enforce the law.

For over a century the date was celebrated among African-Texans with Juneteenth parades, pageants, and barbecues. Because blacks were barred from congregating in public parks, Juneteenth celebrations were often held out in the country on private ranches. Horseback riding and cowboy riding gear became a part of the Juneteenth tradition.

The black holiday had largely died out by the early 1960s. But Juneteenth was revived on June 19, 1968, the final day of the Poor Peoples’ March on Washington, when Reverend Ralph Abernathy called for people of all races to show solidarity. Since then, Juneteenth celebrations have spread across the country. The holiday is big in Milwaukee and Minneapolis, among other places. In 1980, it became an official state holiday in Texas.

The spirit of Juneteenth is sort of a cross between Martin Luther King Day, Passover, and the 4th of July—a celebration of African-American heritage and freedom from slavery. At Mama Sugar's, that means barbecue, music, and dancing.

Members of the Houston Chapter of the 9th and 10th Cavalry Association came to talk about their organization. During the American Civil War, the Union Army created troops of black soldiers popularly known as the Buffalo Soldiers. After the war, two regiments of black mounted soldiers, the 9th and 10th U.S. Cavalry, were formed, along with several regiments of black infantry. The modern association was formed by descendants of the original soldiers. Lt. Kelly (with the white mustache) told me that the group will be leading the final part of the Rodeo trailride next year.

At this year's annual symposium, Foodways Texas gave the Lifetime Achievement Award to Mama Sugar, whose formal name is Nathan Jean Whittaker Sanders. Mama Sugar founded the Sugar Shack Trailblazers in 1983, a trail-riding club that's now a part of the Southwestern Trail Riders Association.

Foodways Texas produced a short documentary film to a tell some of Mama Sugar’s story. The movie by Keeley Steensen recounts the Sanders family’s East Texas cooking traditions and includes footage shot at last year's Juneteenth birthday party. This year, Keeley showed the film at the party. As you can imagine, it was big hit.

Mama Sugar from Foodways Texas on Vimeo.

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Last year, Jamelle Bouie explained the significance of the underappreciated holiday of Juneteenth, which is celebrated today. The article is reprinted below.

Jamelle Bouie

Jamelle Bouie is Slates chief political correspondent.

Officially, the Emancipation Proclamation freed “all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State” where the residents were “in rebellion against the United States.” In practice, it applied only to those slaves who lived near Union lines, where they could make an easy escape or take advantage of the Northern advance.

News of emancipation would move slowly, which would be compounded by the mass migration of slave owners, who fled their holdings in Louisiana and Mississippi—slaves in tow—following the Union victories at New Orleans in 1862 and Vicksburg in the spring and summer of 1863. Tens of thousands of slaves arrived in Texas, joining the hundreds of thousands in the interior of the state, where they were isolated from most fighting and any news of the war. Indeed, Union attempts to occupy Texas were limited to the coastlines—far from the densest slave populations—or repelled before they had a chance to succeed.

A Slate Plus Special Feature:

History of American Slavery, Episode 3: Slavery during the Revolutionary War and Elizabeth Freeman’s groundbreaking “freedom suit.” 

As such, for the next two years, slaves and slave holders lived at a far remove from the events of the eastern United States, including the surrender of Gen. Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia in April 1865. Yes, it ended the war, but it didn’t end the conflict, as fighting continued on the far borders of the Confederacy. And so, when Gen. Gordon Granger entered Galveston, Texas, on June 19 to lead the Union occupation force, he wasn’t just faced with Confederate remnants (the Army of the Trans-Mississippi, for example, had surrendered only a month prior); he had to deal with ongoing slavery in defiance of the Emancipation Proclamation.

To fix the situation, he issued an order:

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 personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.

This proclamation would form the basis for June the Nineteenth or “Juneteenth,” a holiday celebrating the announcement of the end of slavery in Texas.

I say announcement because it would be a stretch to say this freed the slaves of Texas. There, as elsewhere in the South, attempts to act on this freedom were met with violence from former slave owners and other angry whites. “There is much evidence to suggest that southern whites—especially Confederate parolees—perpetrated more acts of violence against newly freed bondspeople in Texas than in other states,” writes historian Elizabeth Hayes Turner in an essay titled “Juneteenth: Emancipation and Memory.” “Between the Neches and Sabine rivers and north to Henderson,” she continues, “reports showed that blacks continued in a form of slavery, intimidated by former Confederate soldiers still in uniform and bearing arms.” Murder, lynching, and harassment were common. “You could see lots of Negroes hanging from trees in Sabine bottom right after freedom,” reported one freed slave, “They would catch them swimming across Sabine River and shoot them.”

If we inaugurated freedom with our nation’s founding and defended it with World War II, we actualized it with the Civil War.

But neither violence nor the sheer size of Texas could stop emancipation from rolling across the landscape. And as it did, freed slaves began to commemorate and celebrate the event, both as an occasion for jubilee and as an act of defiance toward unreconstructed Confederates and other whites who maintained their grip on power in the state.

The first public Juneteenth events occurred in 1866, preceding any similar commemoration of the Confederacy legacy in Texas. At these events, former slaves read the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation—subversively honoring Abraham Lincoln as the Great Emancipator at a time when white Texans saw the slain president as the destroyer of Southern “freedom”—sang spirituals, held games, and celebrated freedom.

These celebrations would continue throughout the 19th century—growing in size and prominence—until the advent of Jim Crow and the aggressive repression of the early 20th century, when blacks were fully disenfranchised and outside the protection of law, vulnerable to the depredations of terrorists and lynch mobs. Put another way, it’s difficult to celebrate freedom when your life is defined by oppression on all sides. Still, the holiday remained in the civic life of black Texans, and began to expand beyond the state with the Great Migration of blacks from the South. As Isabelle Wilkerson writes in The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, “The people from Texas took Juneteenth Day to Los Angeles, Oakland, Seattle, and other places they went.”

With the growth of the civil rights movement in the middle of the 20th century, Juneteenth began to reclaim its space as a central holiday on the black American calendar. It experienced a resurgence in 1968, following the “Poor Peoples March” to Washington D.C., which coincided with the holiday. Attendees from the event brought the celebration back to their homes, creating new traditions in cities and towns across the country. Juneteenth was made a Texas state holiday in 1980, and in 1997, Congress recognized June 19 as “Juneteenth Independence Day,” after pressure from a collection of groups like the National Association of Juneteenth Lineage and National Juneteenth Celebration Foundation.

Thursday marks the 148th anniversary of the first Juneteenth. For now, it’s a niche holiday, celebrated by black Americans and a handful of others who know and understand the occasion. But it deserves wider reach. Indeed, I think we should add it to the calendar of official federal holidays.

Insofar that modern Americans celebrate the past, it’s to honor the sacrifices of the Greatest Generation or to celebrate the vision of the Founders. Both periods are worthy of the attention. But I think we owe more to emancipation and the Civil War. If we inaugurated freedom with our nation’s founding and defended it with World War II, we actualized it with the Civil War. Indeed, our struggle against slave power marks the real beginning of our commitment to liberty and equality, in word, if not always in deed.

Put another way, Juneteenth isn’t just a celebration of emancipation, it’s a celebration of that commitment. And, far more than our Independence Day, it belongs to all Americans.

Enroll now in a different kind of summer school. Slate’s Jamelle Bouie, Rebecca Onion, and our nation’s leading historians on our foundational institution. Included in your Slate Plus membership!

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