The observance celebrates the day slaves were freed after the Civil War.
Most people in the United States honor July 4 as the day their forefathers gained their independence. But not everyone.
“If you understand history of America, it's possible the Fourth of July doesn't mean the same thing to African-Americans as it would to the whites who were never enslaved,” Hill said. “African-Americans are just as American as any other racial group, but in the history of the country, when American colonists broke away from Great Britain, African-Americans were enslaved and remained enslaved. It didn't make much difference for them. It didn't change their everyday lives.
“A holiday like Juneteenth has a special meaning because it's an observance in which African-Americans became free, just like when American colonists declared freedom from the British in 1776.”
Juneteenth, celebrated on June 19, commemorates the day in 1865 when Union Gen. Gordon Grainger rode into Galveston and read Executive Order No. 3 from President Abraham Lincoln, which granted freedom to all slaves. The Emancipation Proclamation, which went into effect Jan. 1, 1863, gave freedom to slaves in Confederate states, including Texas. Slaves in Union states were not freed until the ratification of the 13th amendment in December 1865.
“The Juneteenth celebration is really about the enslaved people in Texas who were kept in slavery after the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect,” Hill said. “Many slaveholders ignored the proclamation and continued to hold people in bondage in the South. By the war's end, slaves in Texas were still being held in bondage, and it was only in June 1865 that a union general came to Texas and forced those slaveholders still holding people in bondage to relinquish their hold on them.”
The 150th anniversary of Juneteenth comes amid a year of celebrations. 2015 is also the sesquicentennial of the 13th amendment and the end of the Civil War, and the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, which prohibited racial discrimination in voting.
“It forces us to reflect on where we've been and perhaps where we're going,” Hill
“African-Americans have spent more time – in terms of decades – in bondage than out of bondage. That's 250 years in slavery, roughly 150 years of freedom, and at least 100 of those we had Jim Crow laws, segregation and lynching. These are the kinds of things we can reflect upon.”
Hill said recent events like those in Ferguson, Missouri, or McKinney, Texas, show the country has not made much distance from its past.
“Thinking about the McKinney, Texas, incident or other incidents in which police officers have shot or assaulted unarmed black people, these incidents are creating racial turmoil, strife and confusion in many ways,” Hill said. “I'm not sure observances like Juneteenth or the ending of the Civil War, or the Voting Rights Act do anything substantive for us. On one hand, it shows we're not that far removed from the years in which racial segregation and voting disenfranchisement was the law of the land in the South. When we observe those holidays, we should be humbled that we're not that far from the time when it was legal to discriminate against black people, when it was legal to enslave them.”
Hill and Miguel A. Levario, an associate professor in the Department of History, have started a podcast called “Tapestry: A Conversation About Race and Culture.” They have recorded 12 episodes since January, each focusing on issues related to race and culture.