Berger’s Burg: Juneteenth honors the ending of slavery in America

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If you wish in the world to advance,...⁄You must stir it and stump it,⁄And blow your own trumpet,⁄Or trust me you haven’t a chance! — W.S. Gilbert

On June 19, 1865, a little−known general read former President Abraham Lincoln’s “Emancipation Proclamation” in Galveston, Texas, and unwittingly created a holiday that today is somewhat as obscure to most people as that general’s name, but it is gaining fame and momentum.

The holiday, Juneteenth, was recognized nationally as the time U.S. slavery ended three years after Lincoln said it did. On June 19, 1865, Union Gen. Gordon Granger read the proclamation in Texas, freeing 250,000 slaves, totally unaware it had been previously issued Sept. 22, 1862.

Pride is the direct appreciation of oneself. — Arthur Schopenhauer

The abolition of slavery had not been carried out following the president’s signing the proclamation. At the time, communication was slow and many slave owners moved west to avoid freeing their slaves. As a result, many blacks remained slaves across the South as the Civil War raged on and past its end in spring 1865.

With the arrival of an army ship in Galveston June 19, 1865, Texas was the last state to learn the South surrendered two months earlier. Over two years after the “Emancipation Proclamation” took effect Jan. 1, 1863, the 250,000 texas slaves were freed.

There will be many celebrations around the nation to honor this event, from backyard picnics and barbecues to more formal events. City folk and black cowboys will kick up their heels, children will frolic and everyone will drink “red soda water,” the traditional strawberry soda. But the sobering reason for the holiday and its growth is its annual remembrance of slavery’s horrors.

The observance has been a state holiday in Texas since 1980 because of Joe King of Portland, Maine, a retired U.S. Army medical administrator who had been stationed at Fort Hood, Texas. He and other blacks formed a group called the “Texpats” and began celebrating Juneteenth. With its lighthearted name and tragic−comic origins, it began appealing to many Americans without dwelling on its legacy. Many say it is the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday without the grieving.

In July 2004, the New York Legislature passed a bill making the third Sunday in June an official, if ceremonial, state holiday, joining 13 other states, including New Jersey, Connecticut, California and Texas. In 1997, Congress recognized “Juneteenth Independence Day” in America. Many people contend Juneteenth and the Fourth of July complete the story of America’s freedom, although each arrived there by different routes.

There is a certain noble pride, through which merits shine brighter than through modesty. — Jean Paul

The commemoration of Juneteenth is important as a reminder of the tragedy of slavery. The event has even taken root in communities with small black populations. Many whites join in the festivities and blacks welcome the integration. The end of slavery is a holiday for all Americans.

Would the slaves of 1865 ever dream that in 2009 America would have a black president sitting in the White House, a black governor of New York, a black Supreme Court justice and countless other blacks holding prestigious offices? We have come a long way, America.

I have a dream …. — Martin Luther King Jr.

So, on June 21, 2009, which is also Father’s Day, Gloria and I will celebrate Juneteenth by drinking the traditional red soda water. And for all the fathers in TimesLedger land, I will tell an appropriate tale that involves both holidays.

My father, a Jewish immigrant from Russo−Poland, was dark−skinned. He immigrated to the United States at age 17. He met and married my fair−complexioned mother years later. They had eight children: Half were dark; half were fair.

When I was 6, my father walked me to the schoolyard to play. A boy I did not know had noticed me. When my father left, he called me a “black bastard” and then punched me. I ran home crying.

“Why did he hit me, Dad? I’m not black,” I sobbed.

“No, you’re not black,” he answered, “but being called a ‘black bastard’ is the same as you being called a ‘Jew bastard.’ Both are forms of bigotry and you should respond to each equally.”

I went back to the schoolyard, found my adversary and punched him back. I have heeded my father’s wise words ever since.

Contact Alex Berger at

Posted 6:33 pm, October 10, 2011
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