Atlanta — and Georgia — has a long, storied history with ‘Freedom Day’
Until recently, Juneteenth was not a celebration or historic event familiar to most Americans. Widely celebrated as “Freedom Day” in black communities throughout Texas for decades, Juneteenth commemorates the June 19, 1865 date enslaved African Americans in Galveston learned that President Lincoln had freed them through the Emancipation Proclamation — more than two and a half years after it was first announced January 1, 1863. Over time, the celebration, also known as Jubilee Day, gained momentum, especially as black Texans spread out to other parts of the country.
That momentum is one of the main reasons President Trump’s initial decision to resume his re-election campaign rallies in Tulsa, Oklahoma — the site of one of the worst massacres of African Americans in US history — on Juneteenth angered so many. As highlighted by the HBO series, “Watchmen,” filmed in the Atlanta metro area and starring Oscar-winner Regina King, white mobs attacked black Tulsans May 31 and June 1, 1921 in the Greenwood District, known as “Black Wall Street” for its distinction as the nation’s then wealthiest black community. The attack devastated the area, resulting in the deaths of around 30 black people, with more than 800 gaining hospital admission.
After a series of high-profile critics, who questioned the location in light of the massive protests taking place throughout the nation in the wake of George Floyd’s death after being knee-ed in the neck by then-Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, Trump moved the rally to the next day, June 20.
Since that development, Juneteenth news has been nonstop. Locally, the Atlanta Hawks made Juneteenth a paid holiday for its employees. Virginia, with help from music producer/artist Pharrell Williams, and New York state both announced that Juneteenth would become a state holiday. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, however, Juneteenth was one of many Emancipation Day celebrations in various parts of the Midwest and, of course, the South, including Atlanta and Georgia overall.
“African Americans held Emancipation Day celebrations really on January 1, because that was the day in which the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect,” shares Savannah native Dr. Karen Cook-Bell, who serves as associate professor of history at Bowie State University, a public HBCU in Maryland. This was true of Savannah and surrounding areas, notes Cook-Bell, who authored the 2018 book, “Claiming Freedom: Race, Kinship, and Land in Nineteenth-Century Georgia” and has done extensive slavery and Civil War-era research in the area.
Georgia State University professor Wendy Venet, who specializes in 19th century U.S. history, teaching courses about the Civil War and Reconstruction, chimes in via email that “annual occasions often took place in local churches or sometimes on one of the black college campuses. Ceremonies included reading of the Proclamation by a prominent member of the community, speeches and music.”
“Sometimes these occasions began with a parade,” she continues. “Often the festivities focused on a message of racial advancement, especially when the celebrations took place at black colleges and universities. Sometimes they were occasions for getting a message out, such as news about the lynching of three black men in south Georgia during the last week of December 1889, [which was a focal point for the Emancipation Day Celebration held January 1, 1890].”
In other communities like Galveston, Emancipation Day celebrations took place annually on or around the day African Americans in those areas learned of the Emancipation Proclamation. For Thomaston, a predominantly white town still over an hour’s drive south of Atlanta in Upson County, May 29, 1865 is that day. And, until this year, Thomaston, according to multigenerational native Rev. James McGill, who wrote “The First One Hundred Years of Upson County Negro History,” published in 2017, that milestone had been celebrated each year around Memorial Day since 1866. It’s widely considered the longest-running consecutive celebration of its kind.
William A. Guilford, a businessman and early black state legislator born in 1844, says Rev. McGill was key in organizing that very first 1866 Emancipation Celebration. “William Guilford,” says Rev. McGill, “wrote there were five speakers,” including James Milton Smith, who later served as Georgia’s 48th governor from 1872-1877. The next day, May 30, white Thomaston resident, James W. Greene, wrote “The freed people had a brilliant celebration on yesterday” in a letter.
Over time, the Emancipation Celebration grew. In 1921, according to Rev. McGill’s book, “It was estimated that from 3,000 to 5,000 Negroes were present.” Early 20th century photographs of Emancipation Celebration confirm a sizable crowd. “The Central of Georgia Railway,” Rev. McGill claims at one point in the book, “ran four special coaches for colored people for this occasion, three from Macon and one from Atlanta.”
Civil rights icons Ralph Abernathy and Hosea Williams are just two of the many historic speakers who have participated in the celebration since its inception, says Lankston Johnson, who led the effort for eight years from the late 2000s into the mid-2010s. Floats, marching bands, vendors and more dot the parade route extending from the predominantly black downtown area, where the parade historically started, to Lincoln Park, another predominantly black area.
At 67, Rev. McGill can’t recall missing one Emancipation Celebration. Neither can 38-year-old Markeevius Smith, who attended both Morris Brown and Georgia State University. At 41 years of age, Johnson only recalls missing one when he was a student at Georgia Southern. It’s a tradition they pass down to their children just as their parents, grandparents, great-grandparents and beyond passed it down.
Today, Thomaston is extremely rare. “Nationally, Juneteenth celebrations have replaced Emancipation Day celebrations as popular events,” notes Venet. “The Atlanta History Center holds annual celebrations over two days that include storytelling, crafts, and costumed interpreters acting as Civil War soldiers in the U.S. Colored Troops.”
Some historians credit the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign for giving Juneteenth a boost through its Solidarity Day event held on Wednesday, June 19, which attracted over 50,000 people in Washington, D.C. Both Ralph Abernathy and Coretta Scott King spoke that day.
“Juneteenth has really had a revival of sorts really since the 1980s to ‘90s,” observes Cook-Bell. That revival, she says, can be attributed to “the momentum of the post-Civil Rights period when African Americans were claiming the gains they had made since the Civil Rights Movement, politically, economically and even socially.”
“Texas became the first state to recognize Juneteenth as an official state holiday in 1980, and other states followed suit in terms of recognizing it either as a state holiday or as a special ceremonial holiday… Today 47 out of 50 states recognize Juneteenth as a state holiday or either as a ceremonial holiday.”
And Georgia is one of them. According to JuneteenthAtl.com, website to Atlanta's own Juneteenth celebration, "In 2011, Georgia became the thirty-seventh state to recognize Juneteenth at its state capitol with the passage of S.R. 164." State senator Lester Jackson from Savannah, along with Atlanta-area state senators Donzella James and Valencia Seay co-sponsored the legislation.
The following year, Bob Johnson, who came to Atlanta back in 1988, created Juneteenth Atlanta which today, he boasts, is “one of the largest Juneteenth events in the country.”
“Last year, we actually held the event at The Home Depot Backyard at Mercedes-Benz Stadium,” he explains. “We also did a three-mile black history parade as part of our events that span over three days instead of one.”