Today, June 19, 2020, is Norman’s first official Juneteenth.
According to the website dedicated to the holiday, Juneteenth dates back to June 19, 1865, when the news finally reached Galveston, Texas, the war had ended and enslaved people had been freed.
This was two and a half years after President Abraham Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863.
There are a few explanations for the delay, but it is not known for sure if any of them are true. One story says the messenger delivering the news of freedom was murdered before he got to Texas. Another says the enslavers withheld the information intentionally to retain their slave labor on their plantations. Another claims the news was federally withheld until the next cotton harvest was over.
Andrea Benjamin, associate professor of African and African American studies, has lived in Norman for less than a year but said she sees the celebration as similar to acknowledging the history of Norman as a Sundown Town and the experiences of the Henderson family here.
“I think in this current climate, obviously Norman is in line with many other places, businesses (and) different states adopting the holiday,” Benjamin said. “But I think to me, it really is a celebration of Black contributions, and also sort of this notion that Black people are still on a quest for universal freedom.”
Benjamin said the recent events and current news cycle have made people more in tune with the issues facing Black Americans.
“For many people, watching George Floyd die, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, for them, this was news,” Benjamin said. “This notion that for us, that hasn't been the case ... (it’s) sort of this awakening of like, ‘Oh, we're not enslaved anymore.’ This, this notion of this experience delayed.”
Karlos Hill, department chair and associate professor of African and African American studies, was interviewed by P.R. Lockhart for Vox in 2018. He explained the holiday serves as a proper acknowledgment of slavery and its effects.
“I think that Juneteenth is a necessary moment of observation because our government and, to a certain degree, our nation and our culture has not really acknowledged the trauma of 4 million enslaved people and their descendants,” Hill said in the interview. “(Our government) hasn’t acknowledged the impact this institution has had on this country and continues to have on this country. There hasn’t been a national accounting, and I think the Juneteenth holiday is kind of a reminder of that.”
Today, the holiday is gaining new recognition in the wake of nationwide protests condemning police brutality and other inequalities plaguing the country.
OU Black Student Association, the Black Graduate Student Association, OU Black faculty and staff, Norman Citizens for Racial Justice and OU NAACP are hosting a Juneteenth celebration from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. tonight in the Mercury Center at 426 E. Main St. The event is free to the public.