Rejoicing on Juneteenth
A Reflection written by Executive Vice President of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion & Ministry, Janai Downs
When the pandemic hit March 2020, churches made the tough decision to close their doors to keep congregants safe from the coronavirus. This closure sustained, for many churches, for the remainder of 2020 and all of 2021. At many Black churches, it seemed fitting to reopen the doors for Watch Night Services on the eve of 2022. Watch Night Services are unique to the Black church. They are usually a couple hours long, designed very similarly to the Sunday morning worship experience with exhortation, singing, praying, and the preached Word, only they are set to the latter part of the day, usually close to midnight and culminating with a countdown to midnight or midnight prayer.
The very first Watch Night Service was held on January 1, 1863 when Black people, enslaved and free, gathered in churches all across the country, awaiting the news of their freedom. At midnight, prayers were answered! Enslaved people had been freed by the Emancipation Proclamation, signed by President Lincoln. Those who were enslaved “shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.” However, it didn’t apply to certain areas such as Texas, which left the Union and joined the Confederacy during the Civil War. Nearly two and a half years later, on June 19, 1865, two months after the Civil War ended, Major General Gordon Granger rode into Galveston, Texas with a decree to free enslaved people. “The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free.” Freedom finally came to more than 250,000 enslaved Black people.
It’s important to note the significance of this decree as we consider what slavery in America was. The trans-Atlantic slave trade began as early as the 15th century. The first slave ship came into Jamestown, Virginia in 1619. This was not a cruise ship of vacationing Black people coming to tour the new world, but instead, a horrific journey of human beings taken captive, shackled, overheating, thirsty, starving, and brutally beaten. Those that survived were sold and exploited into a system of slavery that was commercialized, racialized, and inherited. Slavery was not work for a little less pay. Slavery was a nightmare that has haunted Black lives for generations. That system persisted to the detriment of Black people, and for the protection and prosperity of White people. Mum Bett, later known as Elizabeth Freeman, an enslaved Black woman who sued for her freedom and won, helps us to grasp the horrors of slavery. “If one minute’s freedom had been offered to me, and I had been told I must die at the end of that minute, I would have taken it.”
Imagine, then, what it must have been like for those that attended that first Watch Night service in 1863, to be finally freed from this unlivable horror. Imagine, still, what it must have been like for 250,000 enslaved Black souls in Texas to endure the horror beyond the initial decree and be finally freed two and a half years later.
Juneteenth has since been celebrated with rejoicing, with singing, with dancing, with parades, festivals, cookouts, marches, picnics, and readings.
The name Juneteenth is a combination of June and Nineteenth, and is celebrated annually on June 19, the anniversary of the day the last of the slaves were finally and officially set free. Last year, days before Juneteenth in 2021, President Biden signed a bill to recognize Juneteenth as the 11th federal holiday, making it the first new federal holiday since 1983 when Martin Luther King Jr. Day was established. Since it falls on a Sunday this year, the holiday will be observed on Monday, June 20.
I invite you to observe this day by imagining, reflecting, and then rejoicing in freedom for all.