Why the Juneteenth Festival in Huntsville Alabama Was An Eye-Opening Experience

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Like many people, I don’t know much about Juneteenth having heard of it only a few years ago. When I was in Huntsville Alabama on June 19, I took the opportunity to attend a Juneteenth Festival and learn more about this holiday (also known as Freedom Day and Emancipation Day). Juneteenth events differ from place to place. The Huntsville Juneteenth Festival had lots of the more usual Juneteenth activities, like a Juneteenth Parade and Juneteenth music. There was also a large collection of exhibits explaining the African American community in Huntsville, Alabama.

A Brief History Of Juneteenth

Growing up in New York, we were always taught that Texas was first Spanish, then an independent Republic and then the West. I didn’t realise Texas history made a pitstop in the Confederacy along the way.

Juneteenth is the celebration of the emancipation of enslaved people in Texas, and by extension, the end of slavery in the USA.  On June 19, 1865, Major General Gordon Granger told the enslaved of Galveston, Texas that they were free people.

A Juneteenth celebration banner at Huntsville Depot
A banner for the Juneteenth festival at Huntsville Depot.

Remember, the Emancipation Proclamation was effective as of January 1, 1863. General Lee surrendered in April 1865 and the war itself officially ended in August 1866.

 

Technically, the 250,000 enslaved people in Texas were free from 1863 but no one had told them until 1865. After all, Texas at the time was back of beyond and news travelled slowly. Even then, some Texans in remote parts of the state wanted to get another summer harvest out of their enslaved and so kept the news quite for another year or so.

Tip! Read more about the history of Juneteenth as explained by Harvard Professor and historian, Henry Louis Gates. Jr..

Contrary to my image of Texas being Wild West Cowboy country, Texas apparently was a big believer in slavery.  In 1860, about 1/3 of the Texan population was enslaved. Post-slavery, Jim Crow laws were also embraced to keep the former enslaved in their place at the bottom of society. Between 1877 and 1950, there were 338 documented lynchings.

Actual Jim Crow Laws from the Southern States
Actual Jim Crow Laws show how tough life was for the formerly enslaved.

Juneteenth Festival in Huntsville

My first (and only so far) Juneteenth Festival has been in Huntsville Alabama in 2019. The Juneteenth Festival organised for 2020 in Huntsville is at Stoner Field Park on Saturday June 20th.

The Juneteenth Festival took place at the Huntsville Depot in downtown Huntsville. Families had come in groups to celebrate. The Juneteenth Festival was free entry.

Juneteenth Parade

An honouree read out General Order No. 3 as read by General Gardon in 1865. The Juneteenth Parade involved people marching in with flags which was followed by a children’s band. Then people who played the part of the Buffalo Soldiers came riding in on horseback.

flags being waved by marchers in a Juneteenth parade
The Juneteenth Parade included flags and music.

After the Juneteenth Parade, people dispersed among the Huntsville Depot buildings and lawns.

Juneteenth music played on the porch
Juneteenth music payed by an impromptu band.

Juneteenth Activities

There were Juneteenth activities specifically set up for children and a lot of the informational panels were meant to be education for the younger people there.

“Hold those things that tell your history and protect them. During slavery, who was able to read or write or keep anything? The ability to have somebody to tell your story to is so important. It says: ‘I was here. I may be sold tomorrow. But you know I was here.'”

– Maya Angelou, Writer

At the front of the festival, there was a table for Alabama tourism with two blonde ladies of a certain age handing out information. I was a little taken back because these ladies were not particularly friendly. Not even the fake Southern friendliness which is as sugary as the iced tea. The children were actually very well behaved and polite in my opinion. But these ladies had a face that said they would rather be somewhere else – maybe because they didn’t want to work on a Sunday or the hot day was melting their spackled on makeup. The UK has great expression “a face like a slapped arse” and that’s what these ladies totally reminded me of.

Huntsville depot building
The depot warehouse in which tables explaining aspects of Huntsville black history

One of the large Huntsville Depot buildings was dedicated to tables explaining the African-American history and accomplishments in Huntsville. I learned so much about Southern spiritual songs and coded quilts as well as talked to someone about the underground railroad house in Huntsville, Lowry House.

codes shown in quilts for the underground railroad
Juneteenth activities include talks about deciphering codes in quilts hunts on the porch that was a way for the Underground Railroad to send messages.
Ex-slave William Hooper set up a school to teach African-American teachers in Huntsville which is now the Alabama A&M University
codes in spiritual songs
Coded spirituals were important in bolstering spirits among the enslaved.
African American couple in the wild west
The African American Buffalo Soldiers were a force to be reckoned with in the West
A sign of a giant baptism in Big Spring Park in the 19th century.
A sign of a giant baptism in Big Spring Park in the 19th century.
Explore more!  In addition to Lowry House, pieces of African-American history can be seen at the historic Rosenwald house at Burritt on the Mountain, the slave quarters at the Constitutional Village and the portraits/transcribed songs of former slaves at Weeden House.

Juneteenth Events Across the USA

Juneteenth activities vary widely from state to state ranging from readings to rodeos. Some of the common denominators include a Juneteenth parade and Juneteenth music. Many of the largest Juneteenth festivals occur in Texas.

Juneteenth events were suppressed during the Jim Crow Era so the celebrations never grew together as a united holiday with specific food customs attached to it, like Thanksgiving where the turkey and stuffings is a sacrosanct part of the feast. Juneteenth food is supposed to be red to symbolise the struggle of the enslaved overcoming but there wasn’t any food at the Juneteenth Festival in Huntsville.

A Juneteenth festival sign at Civil Rights Insitute in Birmingham Alabama
Juneteenth activities were also scheduled at the Civil Rights Institute in Birmingham Alabama

Juneteenth came back into the national forefront when Martin Luther King picked June 19, 1968 for the Poor People’s March on Washington. With the assassination of Martin Luther King in April 1968, other civil rights including Frank Abernathy and Martin Luther King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, to carry on with the march.

“Struggle is a never ending process. Freedom is never really won, you earn it and win it in every generation.”

– Coretta Scott King, civil rights   leader

In 1980 Juneteenth was the first state to declare Juneteenth a holiday. There are 45 states that recognise Juneteenth a holiday. There’s been a push to make Juneteenth a federal holiday across the entire United States.

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