As the semester comes winding down to a close, students are looking forward to their summer plans. Many are going back home, to intern and prepare for holidays.
Of course the two major summer holidays that come to mind are Memorial Day and the Fourth of July. However, two African American-centered holidays have been gaining mainstream attention in recent years, and students of all racial backgrounds should make plans to celebrate.
The big one, Juneteenth, is on June 19, and it commemorates the day in 1865 that Union General Gordon Granger announced the news of freedom for the enslaved people of Texas. It has since been used as a day celebrating the liberation of African Americans throughout the country. This was made a federal holiday by President Joe Biden last year after decades of effort.
The lesser known one, Emancipation Day on Aug. 8, marks the day that Andrew Johnson freed his personal slaves in Greeneville, Tennessee, in 1863. One of these former slaves, Sam Johnson, organized the first Emancipation Day in 1871 — starting a tradition of annual celebrations in Tennessee.
Both holidays have their origins in the freedom of slaves, and each has seen a revival of celebrations. Modern Juneteenth celebrations include displays of Black culture, both past and present. Many cities in Tennessee, including Knoxville, have yearly parades, marches for causes and festivities in large city parks.
Specifically, the Beck Cultural Exchange Center on Dandridge Ave. has exhibits and will hold a Martin Luther King Jr.-Juneteenth Memorial March and Parade on June 19 this year.
While Juneteenth was made a federal holiday in 2021, Governor Bill Lee proposed making it a state holiday earlier this year with funding for the state workforce to have the day off. However, the GOP-controlled legislature quietly and shamelessly spiked the bill in February. The bill would’ve simply made Tennessee consistent with the federal government in marking the very important day in our shared history. Alas, it is yet another injury the state legislature has inflicted on the remembering of slavery and racial discrimination in our state.
Despite this disgraceful display by our state leaders, students can still celebrate Juneteenth by attending these events of remembrance and by personally researching slavery and African American history in our state. One of the best ways to commemorate the holiday is to form a better understanding of the still-present scars that slavery and Jim Crow laws have left on our society.
Emancipation Day is a much more regional celebration to Tennessee. While several Southern states have a holiday of the same name, they are usually on different dates, designating the different times when freedom was announced. Tennessee’s version on Aug. 8 is also less widely celebrated than its bigger brother Juneteenth. In recent years, however, it has been spreading to more and more communities of Tennessee.
Greeneville and Knoxville have been historically important to Emancipation Day, but cities such as Clarksville and Johnson City have had large events. East Tennessee in particular has seen a resurgence in celebrating the holiday.
Morristown held its first major celebration in 2021 on the grounds of the former Morristown College, an African American institution of higher education that was built over a former slave market.
Despite its lesser known status, Emancipation Day should be commemorated by all students in Tennessee. Due to its local origins, it is a great opportunity to learn about East Tennessee’s association with slavery and the Black struggle for civil rights in the area.
Stephanie Davis of the Tennessee State Museum wrote in 2021 that “The Beck Cultural Exchange Center in Knoxville hosts an annual Eighth of August Jubilee and Greeneville, where it all began, has an annual Eighth of August Freedom Day celebration.”
I encourage everyone to help establish Emancipation Day celebrations in your towns if they do not have one, even if it is as simple as a picnic. Remembering the struggles for freedom helps build understanding and empathy with each other, especially those still struggling today. Learning about what newly-freed slaves had to go through creates connections to wanting to help people going through hard times today.
Even if your town already has Aug. 8 celebrations, it’s fun to go and meet people in your community! Whether it's a grill-out, parade or other activities, you are sure to come away with a better understanding of your past and your city.
Where July Fourth celebrates independence and Memorial Day honors the sacrifice of service members, Juneteenth and Emancipation Day offer unique chances to create inroads in our community to help fix racial and inequality issues that face us today. They are holidays for action, not just relaxing.
Let’s seize that chance to make our communities better and have fun doing it.
Walker Kinsler is a freshman at UT this year studying political science. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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