IOWA CITY – About 50 people gathered Saturday to commemorate the upcoming anniversary of American independence. But the event had nothing to do with the country’s break with England.
Here, where lyrical poetry, soaring gospel melodies and the words of Martin Luther King Jr., W.E.B. Dubois and Langston Hughes sounded in the small confines of the University of Iowa’s black box theater, was a celebration of a much later date in American history that garners less attention in textbooks than July 4, 1776.
It was June 19, 1865, more than two years after Abraham Lincoln inked the Emancipation Proclamation, when the last vestiges of institutionalized slavery in the United States were officially snuffed out.
On that date, which was quickly dubbed Juneteenth, Union General Gordon Granger rode into Galveston, Texas – where slaves had not yet heard Lincoln’s proclamation– and informed those still-shackled African Americans that they were legally free.
Today, observers of Juneteenth use the time to think about the past, present and future of freedom in America, they say.
“It’s a moment to look forward, as much as it encourages you to look back,” said Shanna Benjamin, Assistant Professor of English at Grinnell College, who spoke at the event.
“Are we, as African Americans, waiting for our General Granger to sweep in and enforce the freedom that we already have?” she asked the room.
Though the celebration is generally seen through the lens of African American culture, several people said it is a day when all Americans should reflect on the country’s melting pot culture.
That type of reflection is especially relevant in a place like Iowa, which is growing in racial diversity, said Barrington Vaxter, a senior at University of Iowa and Member of the Darwin Tuner Action Theater, which performed a two-person break beat poem, called “Sweet/Bitter,” composed especially for the event.
“The dynamic has completely changed,” said Vaxter, who was raised in Iowa City but spent several years in New York before returning for school. He said he noticed a remarkable shift in diversity when he returned to Iowa.
That demographic shift can be seen in Iowa’s census figures, which show that Iowa’s proportion of African Americans has increased from 2.1 to 2.9 percent in the past ten years.
Growing too, is national recognition of Juneteenth as a holiday.
Though the federal government has not officially recognized it, most states have. In 2002, Iowa became the seventh of the now 35 U.S. states to declare Juneteenth a state holiday.
Despite that progress, African-Americans and the Juneteenth movement have a long way to go, said Billie Townsend, secretary of the University of Iowa African American Council and Chair of its Juneteenth committee.
“Most Iowans still don’t know what it means,” she said. “It shouldn’t be a novelty to find out when we celebrate the end of slavery.”