Freedom Means Family: Celebrating Juneteenth

By Melvina Young on February 1st, 2024

Every Juneteenth, African-American communities around the nation break out in joyful celebration of freedom, family, heritage, and community to commemorate June 19, 1865.

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Freedom from Enslavement

Two years after the Emancipation Proclamation had been issued and two months after the official end of the Civil War, Union General Gordon Granger and several thousand federal troops reached Galveston, Texas, a Confederate holdout. Granger pronounced to African Americans still enslaved there: “The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free.”

And as Black people who’d earlier freed themselves by walking away from plantations to join Union lines as slavery crumbled during the war or who’d heard the news immediately after the war had done, African Americans in Texas “put their feet in the road” to find family.

Their first priority—despite widespread violence and new laws intended to stop them—was to reunite their families and to protect them under new civil rights.

Newly freed bondwomen and men moved. They moved to feel the freedom of having control over their own bodies and to find the souls who’d been sold away from them. They moved to get their children back, their mothers and fathers back, and their wives and husbands back.

To them, freedom meant family first.


Searching for Family

African Americans had endured legal enslavement in the United States for 250 years. They had no legal rights to their own bodies or relationships: no right to marry, to have custody or control of their own children, to make money from their own work, or to build wealth for their own families.

Forced separation of families by sale on the auction block took mother from baby, husband from wife, sister from sister, and brother from brother. Sale took a horrific emotional toll: To be “sold down the river” most often meant never seeing family again.

But in spite of these horrendous pressures, African Americans managed to build strong familial relationships, soul-saving extended kinship networks, a history-changing communal culture, and thriving spiritual traditions that continue to this day.

Evidence of their family bonds can be seen in ads African Americans placed in newspapers after the Civil War to find their people:

INFORMATION WANTED: My father, Phil Givens, left Owensboro, Ky., ten years ago for Missouri; also my sister, Bidy Givens. It is said that she lived in Jackson, Mo. Any information about them will be gladly received by writing to me at Owensboro, Ky. —JANE GIVENS

INFORMATION WANTED OF MY SON, Allen Jones. He left me before the war, in Mississippi. He wrote me a letter in 1853 in which letter he said that he was sold to the highest bidder, a gentleman in Charleston, S.C. Nancy Jones, his mother, would like to know the whereabouts of the above named person. Any information may be sent to Rev. J. W. Turner, pastor of the A.M.E. Church, Ottowa, Kansas.

Information Wanted. EVANS GREEN desires to find his mother, Mrs. PHILLIS GREEN, whom he left in Virginia some years ago. She belonged to old Squire Cook, of Winchester, whose son was an attorney-at-law. Any information respecting her will be thankfully received.

The need to find family was so strong that these ads ran for over a half-century after legal slavery and the war were over.


Celebrating Survival

That’s why today African American communities celebrate Juneteenth—June combined with 19th—with family reunions, community picnics and cookouts, concerts, rodeos, street fairs, church events, museum programs, and other joyful cultural affairs.

It’s a celebration of freedom and everything freedom means: the right to make, keep, protect, and honour family; the right to earn from your own labour and create wealth that will take your family forward; the right to make your own way, and to pave a road your children can walk to a brilliant and promising future.

Before slavery ended, the 4th of July did not represent freedom to African Americans, as it did for other Americans, because they were not free people. Today many African Americans hold both Juneteenth and the 4th to be celebrations of liberation.

But, most of all, Juneteenth is a testament to the will of African Americans to survive slavery as full human beings and as loving, connected families.