I have to confess that before today I had never heard of Juneteenth, also known as Freedom Day or Emancipation Day. Apparently it is is recognized as a state holiday in 31 of the United States, including California. A portmanteau of the words June, eighteenth and nineteenth, Juneteenth commemorates the announcement of the abolition of slavery in the state of Texas in June 18 and 19, 1865, although the Emancipation Proclamation had been effective since January 1, 1863. As Fitz at the St Anthony Foundation Blog aptly puts it:

For two whole years all those enslaved people in Texas were legally freed, but went on living and laboring in their dehumanized condition because no one had managed to get the good news of their liberation to them.

And on the broader significance of a holiday like Juneteenth today, he offers quite a deep thought:

Haven’t you had some Juneteenth moments in your own life? For many of us in recovery it’s been a clarifying moment (or season) when we realized that we actually COULD live free from the slavery of addiction. For others it may have been the liberating experience of crossing over some previously forbidding barrier, getting past fear and apprehension, (perhaps by volunteering at a place like St. Anthony’s Dining Room) and discovering that the world isn’t as scary a place as it once seemed to be. And for some of us it may have been one of those light-bulb-going-on-in-our-head moments when, thanks to the revealing insights of a teacher or mentor, or even to the stubborn position of an opponent in a debate, some previously hidden truth suddenly, finally, opens up to us.

It appears that the San Francisco Juneteenth Festival is the oldest and largest Juneteenth Celebration outside of Texas where Juneteenth originated, and this year marks the 59th edition. According to the SF Juneteenth website, it is the largest gathering of African-Americans in northern California and here’s how it originated:

In the early 1950s, Dr. Wesley Johnson Sr. then owner of The Texas Playhouse on Fillmore Street invited all Bay Area Blacks to come join the “June 19th” celebration at his famous Fillmore street cocktail lounge. The celebration expanded outside his doors to the point that Johnson along with local community and business leaders, led a parade down Fillmore street. Dr. Johnson and former San Francisco Mayor Willie L. Brown Jr. both natives of Texas, were at the front of the procession on white horses with Stetsons adorning their heads. The assertion of the new found freedom that blacks received in San Francisco from segregation in the Southwest was as important an expression as the original celebration of emancipation.

[…]

San Francisco Juneteenth has taken on even more importance because the traditional black neighborhoods in the Western Addition and Bayview/Hunters Point have lost population due to the increased ability of blacks to live throughout the region due to rising incomes, redevelopment which displaced some residents and businesses and an influx of new residents into those communities. San Francisco Juneteenth is the one constant which dates back to the days when the Western Addition covered 120 consecutive blocks of 100 percent African-American households. During the 50 years since, the area that is home to Juneteenth has been home to world figures like Maya Angelou, Whoopi Goldberg, Alex Haley, Ernest Gaines, Terri McMillan, Johnny Mathis, Etta James, Mayor Willie Brown, Dr. Carlton B. Goodlett and Danny Glover.

So if you feel inspired to celebrate African American freedom in San Francisco, you can participate in the Juneteenth parade tomorrow Saturday June 20 starting at 11:30 Hamilton Park on Post street between Pierce and Steiner, and ending at the Civic Center Plaza. And you should definitely check out the SF Juneteenth Festival at the Civic Center Plaza happening both Saturday June 20th and 21st, 2009 between 10am to 7pm. The Civic Center Plaza will be filled with food, arts and crafts, community booths and corporate sponsor areas. Two stages of Live Entertainment, Motivational Speakers, a Healthy Living Fair and a Job Fair.

[Photo of last year’s San Francisco Juneteenth Festival by mdsea923. Check out his full Juneteenth photoset here]