Juneteenth: For Fathers and Most Other Americans, An Overlooked Independence Day
Today in Ardmore, two seemingly dissimilar holidays share common themes of civil rights, education, and paternal responsibility.
As Americans mark Father’s Day today, millions of dads across the land will be celebrated with new neckties, steaks on the grill, and gratitude from children and wives.
Today is also Juneteenth.
It’s safe to say the former occasion is receiving a fair bit more attention than the latter. But it’s not for lack of significance, for Juneteenth, or “Freedom Day,” commemorates nothing less than the ending of slavery in the United States. On June 19, 1865, Texas became the final state to surrender in the Civil War.
It is not uncommon for Juneteenth and Father's Day to fall on the same Sunday. But while Father's Day maintains its status as a commonly known holiday, with advertising trumpeting the occasion for weeks ahead of time, Juneteenth remains largely obscure to most Americans—even most African-Americans.
Juneteenth is a challenging holiday because “it’s really difficult to acknowledge that which you don't know,” said Rev. Albert Johnson, of Ardmore’s Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, a denomination founded in protest against slavery.
Johnson said he turns to local churches and communities to allow Juneteenth to “serve as a day of reflection.” Ardmore’s population of roughly 12,600 is almost 12 percent black.
He notes that traditional textbook history tends to focus on the heroic narrative of President Abraham Lincoln freeing the slaves, rather than the collective—and much more complicated—perspective of the enslaved.
Nevertheless, Juneteenth is the oldest national celebration of the ending of slavery, a landmark in the history of human rights. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, by contrast, was first day observed as a national holiday only 25 years ago, in 1986. (It wasn’t officially observed by all 50 states until 2000.)
There are strains of irony and poignancy that run through the legacy of Juneteenth, as history and as modern holiday.
Another calendar issue that tends to diminish Juneteenth is that the Fourth of July—Independence Day, the nation’s largest patriotic holiday—is just around the corner. Of course, that great day in 1776 meant considerably less to Africans on American soil at the time. Yet Union soldiers freed those last slaves in Texas, 146 years ago. (Juneteenth is now officially called “Emancipation Day” in Texas, and has been an official state holiday since 1980.) And though they served in segregated units, blacks fought and died in Union uniforms.
Meanwhile, 46 years later, on June 10, 1910, a little holiday called Father's Day was born. It owes its existence to Sonora Smart Dodd of Washington state, a grateful daughter who, along with her five brothers, was raised single-handedly by her father after her mother died at childbirth.
While it may be a coincidence that Juneteenth and Father's Day often fall on the same day, a greater connection between the two holidays runs deep in the African-American community.
In a 2008 Father's Day speech, President (then-Senator) Obama, discussed what the New York Times described as “one of the most sensitive topics of the African-American community: whether absent fathers bore responsibility for some of the intractable problems afflicting black Americans.”
Speaking to a large black church in Chicago and invoking his own absent father, Obama said, “Too many fathers are M.I.A, too many fathers are AWOL, missing from too many lives and too many homes.”
“There is that stereotype that we are absent from the lives of our children,” Johnson acknowledged, “and I think it’s more stereotype than it is reality.”
Especially with divorce rates growing around the country, Johnson points out that the issue of absent fathers transcends color and nationality, and has more to do with relationships, marriages, and families. While he won't spend a lot of time speaking about it, he nonetheless planned to focus on “how we can get past this stereotype and do what we can for the children and the community itself.”
Today, June 19th, offers a chance for the black community in Ardmore to reflect on freedoms of the past, family choices, and paths to the future. A few days ago, Johnson prepared to connect the themes of both holidays for today’s sermon.
Juneteenth “gives us an opportunity to talk about the challenges of education and the need for self-improvement,” Johnson said. This, too, was a theme for Obama in that 2008 speech, as he admonished, “Don’t get carried away with that eighth-grade graduation.”
Aside from focusing on paternal commitment to family life, Bethel AME is holding a Scholarship Day to celebrate the “young people and the not-so-young” people who have committed themselves to furthering their education. The church will recognize several college graduates, as well as one woman who recently received her third master’s degree.
For another year, though, Juneteenth will pass largely unrecognized, locally and nationally. There are exceptions (see below). But last week, officials at the Ardmore Avenue Community Center said Juneteenth hasn't been celebrated here for years.
As for Father's Day, Sonora Smart Dodd’s legacy is bedrock firm.
More on Juneteenth
- For those interested in marking the anniversary, the African American Museum in Philadelphia (AAMP) is holding a Juneteenth Jam to mark their 35th anniversary of preserving, exhibiting, and interpreting African American history.
- The Philadelphia Juneteenth Jazz & Arts Festival will be celebrated on Sunday, July 10, at the Philadelphia Clef Club (736-38 S. Broad Street, Philadelphia).
- The 2011 Juneteenth National Freedom Day Festival was celebrated Saturday in Philadelphia’s Germantown section, by the 6300 Germantown Avenue Business Alliance.
- Three weeks ago, at Ardmore’s St. Paul’s Cemetery, Rev. Albert Johnson of Bethel AME Church gave the memorial prayer to conclude Lower Merion Township’s Memorial Day. Click here for a short excerpt video of his remarks.
- According to the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation, “Juneteenth is now recognized as a state holiday or state holiday observance in 36 states and the District of Columbia. Many more states will be passing Juneteenth holiday observance legislation in 2011.” The foundation is pushing to make Juneteenth a federal national holiday.
- Ralph Ellison, best known for his groundbreaking civil rights novel, “Invisible Man,” followed that 1952 work with another novel, entitled, “Juneteenth.” But the book was published posthumously, and finished by a colleague.