UCI Podcast: Recognizing Juneteenth
Historian Jessica Millward talks about the history behind the important day
In honor of Juneteenth, the UCI Podcast is bringing back a June 2020 podcast with Jessica Millward, an associate professor of African American studies and history at UCI. Here, Millward discusses this important day in the context of the thousands of Black Lives Matter rallies across the world protesting the police murder of George Floyd.
June 19 – Juneteenth – marks the day in 1865 that the Union Army announced in Texas that enslaved African Americans were free. Black Americans since then have honored the day, even as it has gone unnoticed by many others until recently. Millward tells the UCI Podcast about the history behind Juneteenth, the decades upon decades of continued struggle, and the hope she feels with the Black Lives Matter movement.
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The announcement in the newspaper came from Texas in 1865. It read, “Important orders by General Granger. The slaves, all free. Headquarters, district of Texas, Galveston, Texas. June 19th, 1865. General orders No. 3: ‘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.’ By command of Maj. Gen. Granger, F.W. Emery, Major and A.A.G.” From the University of California, Irvine, I’m Aaron Orlowski, and you are listening to the UCI Podcast.
At the end of the civil war, the African American slaves in Texas were the last to gain news of their freedom. They rallied around the date of June 19 and within a year transformed Juneteenth into a celebration. It’s a holiday that Black Americans have honored for decades, but has gone largely unnoticed by many others, until now.
In 2020, as protestors march in the streets over the killing of George Floyd at the hands of the police, what is there to celebrate? How much has changed in one and a half centuries? And how much further do we need to go?
Today, I’m speaking with Jessica Millward, an associate professor of history at UCI and an expert on African American history and early slavery in America. Professor Millward, thank you for joining me today on the UCI Podcast.
Thank you for having me, Aaron.
So, these past few weeks, we’ve all born witness to the killing of George Floyd and the protests that have followed. As you watched this unfold, what has that been like for you?
You know, I am still actually trying… struggling to find the right words to discuss not just the sense senseless killing of Black people, but this overwhelming national and international movement to demand change. So, I will say that when the news of George Floyd broke, I really only had the words of civil rights activist, Fannie Lou Hamer, who at one point said she was “sick and tired of being sick and tired.”
I think many of us in the African American community are sick and tired of being sick and tired. We have been walking around in this kind of spirit of mourning and violence, literally since 1619, 400 years – when a woman named Angela disembarked on the shores of Virginia with 19 other Africans. And we don’t know their fate, but we do know by the end of their lifetime, that slavery had become permanent and inheritable through the womb of Black women.
I know this sounds long and dramatic, but honestly the George Floyd protests actually showed us how much the rest of the world was not listening to African-descended pain, pain of African descended people. Because it is on one hand phenomenal to see the support. But on another hand, it’s also disheartening to realize that many people were introduced to Black Lives Matter simply because they were in front of their TV or their social media device and had nowhere to go because of COVID. So, they were seeing these images over and over and over again.
So, on one level I am overwhelmed and horrified the Black death continues. On another hand, I’m very energized and excited that people – mainstream society – is finally pushing for some kind of change in terms of how African Americans are treated.
So, it sounds like for you, there are some things to celebrate here on Juneteenth, which is today. What do you do to mark the day?
Juneteenth actually coincides with my birthday, so normally I have a party. But if I don’t have a party, I try to attend – if there’s a cultural festival going on, or if other friends are having a party. Nine times outta 10, I’m working on issues like this to bring the word out to other people about the importance of Juneteenth. This year, I’m actually going to be watching a play.
There’s a play, ironically. It was written by a UCI undergrad named Leelee Jackson and directed by a woman named Kyra Jones. Yes, I’m about to give it a plug. The play is called Comb Your Hair (Or You Will Look Like a Slave), which I know is supposed to be tongue in cheek, but I also feel like there’s probably gonna be some deep issues that are discussed. So, that will be tonight, June 19th at 6 p.m. Pacific. And it is on www.blacklightartscollective.com. Blacklightartscollective.com. And again, it’s a UCI undergrad – former undergrad. So, I’m excited to watch that via a Zoom party with other people.
Well, that’s very exciting. It sounds like a really interesting play. For people who aren’t as familiar with the Juneteenth celebrations and who hadn’t heard of it maybe before this year, what are some common traditions that people celebrate on the day?
Well, the first thing you need to know about any kind of celebration with African Americans – or really people in the African diaspora – is food. We love food! We love food. So, if you go to a Juneteenth celebration, there’s going to be traditional soul food. There’ll be collard greens or smothered chicken, traditional barbecue… strawberry soda, because it was a delicacy. There’s gonna be traditional kind of foods. You’ll probably see some sweet potato pie or other things that you could associate with traditional African American culture – some cornbread or johnnycake, if you’re from places in the west Indies.
Anyway, it’s food. It is music. There are times – depending on who is running the program – it might be a formal program where people pray together and sing some of the traditional slave narratives like slave spirituals. It might be that people read poetry or readings from classic African American authors. It can really vary, but it is a time for family and for celebration and for celebrating the Black past. And, most importantly, to celebrate this coming of freedom that so many people didn’t ever think would happen – so many inside people didn’t think would happen.
Yeah. Well, let’s back up a little bit and talk about that. When was the very first Juneteenth celebration?
So, you come with very hard questions for the historian, Aaron. (laughs)
I’m sorry. (laughs)
So, let’s talk about – even before we go there – we would have to talk about the Emancipation Proclamation. On January 1st, 1863, President Lincoln passes the Emancipation Proclamation, and it deems that anyone who resides where the Union Army has arrived – or is residing in an area occupied by the Union Army – they are henceforth and forever declared free. So, it took time for this to not just filter through enslaved communities, but it took time for the Union Army to advance on the South and then proceed to outlying territories, such as Texas.
So, for example, Juneteenth commemorates the date June 19th, 1865. So, almost two years later, that’s the day that enslaved people in Texas got the news that slavery was abolished. They were the last holdout and they refused to recognize that enslaved people were free and there are reports of people finding out two years later that they had been free the entire time. There are reports of people literally dropping their sickle or their hoe or their hammer and walking off the farm.
So, we celebrate Juneteenth because it was a long road to freedom. Celebrations started happening after 1865, you can imagine. There’s kind of been moments in U.S. history where Juneteenth or Black cultural events have increased – the attention has increased. So, after the first World War, when African American soldiers came back to the United States and they were treated very poorly – they were spit on, they were beat up if they wore the U.S. army uniform – and what you saw at the same time was African American soldiers coming back – you see in Harlem this great outpouring of Black culture called the Harlem Renaissance. We also see a revival of Juneteenth to celebrate the atrocities that African Americans have overcome.
We then see it reemerge again, during the civil rights movement. We see it emerge again during the Black Power movement. And I think there’s no accident that it’s reemerging now – that there’s another revival of African American civil and human rights.
So, it’s kind of reemerged at different points when, you know, civil rights have been at the top of the conversation and as there’s been revivals in that arena throughout the decades.
Yes, it’s pretty amazing actually. It is all cyclical. So, African American oppression, African American resistance to that oppression, and then sources of African American strength are all woven together. There’s an atrocity and there has to be some kind of celebration at some point – or some reaching back to the past – so that people can be able to push forward.
I wanted to talk a little bit about some other recent news that we had actually just this week that I think ties in pretty well. Just this week, we found out that the University of California Board of Regents was endorsing the repeal of proposition 209. Proposition 209 was passed in 1996 and it essentially outlawed affirmative action. So, the Board of Regents’ action this week does not reinstate affirmative action, since that’s something that the voters will have to do, but it does send a pretty strong signal of their support for racial equality. As a professor in the UC system, what was your reaction to that news?
Well, if I can borrow from another word that is used to describe Juneteenth, which is jubilation. I was a graduate student actually when Prop 209 was passed. And so, I’ve witnessed both as a student and as a faculty member how African Americans, in particular, have been erased from the UC system. And there’s been a lot of programs that the UCs have developed in order to combat the fact that they weren’t necessarily recruiting a very diverse pool of people.
Prop. 209 passed. It radically changed the – literally – face of UCs. And it, in some ways, it backfired in a way. Instead of opening access for many people, it actually did the opposite. So, we’re now in a deficit with some certain populations not being able to be represented in the UC system.
So, for me, I think it would be great if the state passed to repeal Prop 209. I think then it’ll let us get back to the business of taking care of people of color within the UC system. I mean, the UCs were a land-grant institution, so their priorities should be on students within the state of California. And I think sometimes in the big research machine and this movement to make sure that everything’s fair, that some of our best in California have also been forgotten.
Well, let’s talk a little bit more about Juneteenth today. So, the interest in the holiday is just surging right now. Many major companies are treating it as a paid holiday, and many others giving employees half days off or ending the retail hours early so that their workers can go home and sort of reflect. So, why do you think there is this momentum right now to honor Juneteenth?
I will take the positive first. The positive is that employers, corporations, places where Black people spend their money, are now realizing that this is a very important holiday. First of all, many people didn’t know it existed. African Americans knew it existed. We might have taken the day off without even telling anyone because you have to prepare properly for your cookout. (laughs) I mean, you have to – some of this food takes days.
Honestly, I think, again, this is kind of a double-edged sword. That is wonderful – let corporations do whatever they can. I am very much in favor of retroactive reparations. But I think what it does, then, when people jump on the “Juneteenth bandwagon,” it then is forming as a kind of critical cultural and racial erasure.
Erasure. So, that we have a celebration of Juneteenth at the same time that statues of Confederate war heroes are being toppled. And, as much as I say, “Yes, take down the Confederate soldiers. People should not be working under somewhere where the Confederate flag is hanging.” I also say that all of this is symbolic of America trying to sanitize itself of its race problems.
So, if we topple down these statues, if we make Juneteenth a national holiday – in some ways, one would think, “Wouldn’t that be even?” You know, it reminds me of when Barack Obama came to office, people assumed that the Americans’ racial problems were over. Um, the last three weeks show us that it is not over. And if anything, unfortunately, we’re heading towards a catastrophe if someone doesn’t get in charge of it. So, I think Juneteenth is great, for the record. I think employers should do whatever they can. 40 million dollars just went to HBCUs from some certain corporations. I think this is great. But, on the other hand, let us not jump so quickly that we forget America’s long and tiring struggle with racial justice.
So, it sounds like in your view there, we still need to reckon with that past, and we need to remember it as well, and not just sort of commemorate a day and move on and kinda try and just forget that things happened.
Exactly. And I think that if people keep the traditional elements of Juneteenth within the holiday itself – from reading words from former slaves or reading words or singing words of African Americans – things of that nature – if you keep the same kind of elements to realize that Juneteenth is the celebration of a very, very hard-fought battle, then it’s great. But if Juneteenth becomes commercialized, which is what I fear – it becomes commercialized – it, something like the meaning of Christmas, is also going to be sabotaged. So, I think it is great. I think it is “great, but…” or “great, and…” We don’t wanna lose sight of the fact that this date commemorates the fact that upwards of 4 million people were held in bondage in the United States. Let’s not miss the history that comes before Juneteenth.
And let’s also not forget the history of three weeks ago.
You know, when George Floyd was killed and that set off so many of the events that have followed in these past few weeks – and that was a single event and it was a tragedy and it happened in a place in time, in real life affecting real people – but it also seems that his story has kind of served as a metaphor for so many people. His story has resonated in a really unique way. Why do you think that is?
I think a few things. I think the very fact that the nature of how he was killed. There’s been plenty – and unfortunately, plenty – of police shootings, or death by police or death by vigilantes, like George Zimmerman. Plenty of these have been caught on video or with 911 tapes.
But I think with George Floyd, it was visceral, and it was in one’s face. And the cop put his knee on his neck, had his hands in his pocket and was smiling – was almost enjoying it as this man is pleading for his life. And I think as you literally saw the life drain out of him, it was too much for most people. To have him calling out for his dead mother – we all know that when you see people that are dead, that we know they’re coming to get you.
So, it’s literally, we saw the life just being extinguished from him. I think it was like the visceral nature and the virtual nature – and the fact that people had no choice but to sit and watch this play on their screens over and over again. Any other time, they would’ve been able to go on with their life, but people are sheltering in place. So, I think it’s the nature of how he died that has galvanized people.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t use the words of his daughter, Gianna, who was on the shoulders of Stephen Jackson, the former NBA player. And he asked, “What did your daddy do?” And she responded back, “Daddy changed the world.” It’s not an understatement to say that the death of George Floyd or the loss of his life changed the world. There are protests internationally. Black Lives Matter activists have been campaigning for years. For years since Trayvon Martin, since Mike Brown, Sandra Bland – I mean, we could go on and on about the list of names that people have tried to bring to the public forefront. But George Floyd was, in a way, so in people’s face and they could not escape it. And the loss of his life did change the world.
Professor Millward, thank you for joining me today on the UCI Podcast.
Thank you for having me.
The UCI Podcast is a production of Strategic Communications and Public Affairs at the University of California, Irvine.