“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.
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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 sizeable 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.”
Emancipation Celebration in the community of Lincoln Park in the Thomaston, GA area, 1946. Courtesy of Thomaston-Upson Archives
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.
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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.
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“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.
This Feb. 18, 2005, file photo shows the original Emancipation Proclamation on display in the Rotunda of the National Archives in Washington. President Abraham Lincoln first issued the Emancipation Proclamation declaring all slaves free in Confederate territory on Sept. 22, 1862. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed an executive order Wednesday, June 17, 2020, recognizing Juneteenth as a paid holiday for state employees to commemorate the emancipation of slaves in the U.S. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)
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.”
Though COVID-19 has shut down their regular Juneteenth festivities for now, Johnson says that Friday night, artists will jam on top of roofs along Ponce De Leon, and they will livestream historians speaking on black history during the weekend. Friday, during the day, Johnson says, in the spirit of freedom, especially in light of the Atlanta police killing of Rayshard Brooks and other recent events in Georgia and the rest of the nation, they will march with 2000 students from the King Center to Centennial Olympic Park.
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“If ever there needs to be a Juneteenth event somewhere, it definitely has got to be in the South where we were getting hung and picking the cotton and all of that stuff, all throughout the South,” he says. “We should make [it] the largest. We should have the largest celebration that commemorates all of those ancestors and all of that history, not only about Juneteenth, but pre-Juneteenth and even all the way up to current events today… I want it to be more inclusive of everything that we’ve been through as a people and all the greatness of our history and not just the tragic parts.”