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What Is Juneteenth? Historians Explain The Holiday's Importance


When President Trump recently announced that he was holding a rally in Tulsa, Okla., on June 19, some Americans were outraged. Other Americans had no idea why their friends and family and fellow citizens were so upset. Let's talk about why that is with professor Daina Ramey Berry, who's an author and historian at the University of Texas in Austin. Welcome, professor.

DAINA RAMEY BERRY: Thanks for having me.

KING: June 19 - or Juneteenth - for those who don't know, what is this date? Why is it so important?

BERRY: That was the date that African American enslaved people in Texas were told that they were free. Now, the Emancipation Proclamation of January 1 of 1863 was supposed to free all the enslaved people in the, quote, unquote, states of rebellion. But Texas slaves were not notified of their freedom until June 19 of 1865. And as a result, African Americans have been celebrating Juneteenth to celebrate African American freedom.

KING: And it's a joyful holiday.

BERRY: Absolutely. It's really amazing holiday because it started off early. Like, in the 1860s after slavery ended, this was a time when communities got together, whether they were in their homes or backyards. And they had elders tell stories about what it was like to be enslaved. And when that generation died off, the oral history continued.

KING: Professor, how is it possible that so many white Americans have not heard of Juneteenth?

BERRY: Well, some people argue that this is not well-known because it's more of a regional recognition because it was from Texas and it's just for Texas only. There's a push now to make it a national holiday. But I think people don't know about it because people don't know that much about the history of slavery in America.

KING: We see people in real-time learning about this, which is extraordinary. Let's talk about Tulsa. Hannibal B. Johnson is a historian and author of many books about black Americans in Oklahoma. And he joins us on the line from Tulsa. Welcome.

HANNIBAL B JOHNSON: Great to be here.

KING: What was the Tulsa race massacre?

JOHNSON: The Tulsa race massacre is an event that occurred on May 31 and June 1 of 1921. It really is emblematic of the historical racial violence that was occurring all throughout the United States. So Tulsa is unique in terms of the magnitude of the destruction because it had a really well-developed entrepreneurial, economic, black community - Black Wall Street. It's a really well-developed community of service providers like doctors and lawyers, pharmacists, dentists, et cetera.

KING: Who actually instigated the race massacre?

JOHNSON: Well, the massacre was perpetrated by a mob of what you might call white vigilantes. There was an incident on an elevator involving two teenagers, a black boy and a white girl. The facts were that there was something that occurred on the elevator, probably an accidental bump or a brush. She exited the elevator and ultimately told a story of an assault.

That story morphed into an attempted rape, which really riled the community. We were already in a national atmosphere where the dominant philosophy around race was white supremacy. So this encounter caused great consternation and hostility in the white community.

KING: Hannibal, I want to ask you about erasure as well. My co-host, Rachel Martin, tweeted out the other day, I am genuinely curious to know how many white Americans were ever taught about the Tulsa massacre in school. It was never mentioned in any school I went to. Rachel got about 950 responses. And overwhelmingly, overwhelmingly people said, this was not taught in my school. Why is this massacre not taught in American schools?

JOHNSON: The reasons are complex. So this happened in 1921. This is a period in which the trajectory of Tulsa is distinctly upward. Tulsa would go on to become the self-described oil capital of the world. So the white leadership of Tulsa had an interest in minimizing the massacre.

The other thing, I think - it's consistent with what the professor has already said - is we're not good, as Americans, about teaching uncomfortable history - slavery, these so-called race riots, lynchings. We really don't want to confront that history. But we can't fix what we haven't faced. And facing our history means properly including it in curricular materials including textbooks.

KING: Daina, let me turn this question over to you. When we are ignorant of our history as Americans, what do we lose? What do we lose out on?

BERRY: We miss out on understanding that some of the things that we're confronting today are issues that have a connection to something in the past. We miss out on the opportunity from learning from the past. We miss out on the opportunity of understanding where hate comes from. We miss out on that because we don't understand the root. And the root comes from a history that many of us don't necessarily know.

And I think - I'm very happy that Mr. Johnson talked about textbooks because that's one of the places where there was a particular narrative about American history that has been told. And so oftentimes, the textbooks are written in a way of this sort of grand narrative of success and freedom and victory. And at the hands of that are people of color and marginalized groups of people. I mean, there's a whole underbelly to the history that is not necessarily told. And it's starting to be told now.

KING: Did either of you learn about Juneteenth in a history textbook?

BERRY: I did not.

JOHNSON: I did not either.

KING: Where did you learn about it?

JOHNSON: I learned about Juneteenth, really, just through experience with the various communities in which I lived. I wasn't familiar with Juneteenth as a child growing up. But in Tulsa, there historically has been a large Juneteenth celebration.

KING: Daina, what about you? Go ahead.

BERRY: Yeah. I first learned about it in college, to be quite honest. My parents taught me a lot of my early history lessons. And so we used to celebrate Kwanzaa when I was growing up. And I learned about Juneteenth, but then started participating in celebrations in college as an undergrad. But when I moved to Texas almost 11 years ago, I've seen this culture of celebration firsthand in the state that it was really sort of took off. And I love the fact that other states are now participating because it's an opportunity to have a conversation about emancipation.

KING: Daina Ramey Berry is an author and a historian at the University of Texas in Austin. And Hannibal B. Johnson is a historian and author who lives in Tulsa, Okla. Thanks to you both for joining us. And Happy Juneteenth.

JOHNSON: Likewise.

BERRY: Thank you. Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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