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If you’re not familiar with the holiday, it commemorates the end of slavery in the United States, marking the date, June 19, 1865, that the Union Gen. Gordon Granger got to Galveston, Texas, to tell enslaved African-Americans there that they had been freed. The Emancipation Proclamation had been issued about two and a half years earlier, on Jan. 1, 1863.
[What to know about Juneteenth.]
For more than a century, African-Americans have celebrated the holiday in communities across the country. But this year, the day has arrived amid the most widespread uprisings against racism in decades, and longstanding efforts to make Juneteenth a national holiday have gained new momentum.
Companies like Nike, Twitter and Uber have made it a paid holiday. The New York Times offered Juneteenth as a flexible holiday. (We’re choosing to observe it today, so there won’t be a newsletter on Monday.)
I talked to Susan Anderson, the director of public programs for the California Historical Society and an expert on black history in California, about what the wider celebration of Juneteenth in the state means, and what we should learn from this moment.
Here’s our conversation, edited and condensed for length:
First, can you talk a bit about California’s role in the Civil War and in slavery?
There’s no way to understand California without understanding that it entered the Union as part of the Compromise of 1850.
California’s Legislature did include in the founding constitution that slavery wouldn’t be recognized, but that didn’t end up being the case. Many Southerners and many people who were slave holders migrated to the state.
There are newspaper ads in San Francisco and Sacramento advertising to sell people, newspaper ads looking for people who ran away. Probably in every county in California, courts hold manumission papers that were issued to people who received their liberty.
It’s almost certain that the reason these papers are actually in court is because the African-Americans who got the papers insisted that they be filed publicly, that way they could be documented. There’s newspaper coverage of many court cases in which a person sued for their freedom.
[Read about Biddy Mason, a formerly enslaved black woman who helped build Los Angeles.]
How has Juneteenth been celebrated in California?
In Texas, and throughout the country, the whole false narrative of the “Lost Cause” began to rise and pro-Confederates started erecting all kind of monuments to false history. Among African-Americans, Juneteenth was a way to provide a counternarrative to the glorification of the Confederacy. And what they did was take a date that was really ignored and flouted by the pro-Confederacy whites in Texas and made it a cause to celebrate liberation. It was a Texas phenomenon.
In the 19th century, really the date that most black people commemorated was Jan. 1, because that was the date the Emancipation Proclamation was issued. There used to be all-night vigils on New Year’s Eve.
Juneteenth as a national phenomenon was much more of a late 20th-century thing. California recognized Juneteenth in 2003.
During the great migrations, people from Texas came West. They didn’t go north, or east. They came to Oakland, they came to Los Angeles, they came to Bakersfield, they came to Seattle. So California has a serious contingent of African-Americans who came from Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana and they brought Juneteenth with them. So it’s very widespread now.
What do you think about the movement to more widely recognize what has traditionally been an African-American holiday?
That, I believe, is the intention of the people who’ve been behind the official recognition of Juneteenth. Martin Luther King Day isn’t a black holiday, it’s an American holiday.
We’ve accepted so many of these harmful narratives of our history. These holidays and these discussions are an attempt to correct that.
And from the beginning, Juneteenth was an attempt to correct the glorification of the Confederacy. Why would that be a black thing? Why wouldn’t that be an American thing?
So nothing, obviously, is comparable to chattel slavery. But I’m wondering if you see anything in current events that is making these efforts resonate now. I’m thinking, for example, about how you mentioned that formerly enslaved people wanted to ensure they were documented, which sounds as if there are parallels for immigrants today.
I think what you said is right about documented versus undocumented people.
But I also want to say that this is a time, and there is a need, to talk to about black people.
What’s being said in this moment is we have to pay attention to the root of it all. In the United States, the first refugee crisis was precipitated by the fugitive slave law in 1850. And we had our own experiences with it in California.
Every form of oppression in the United States is based on two things: It’s based on stealing land and genocidal attacks on Indigenous people and the enslavement of African-Americans.
That’s what the colonists did. That was true whether they were British or Spanish colonists.
The other thing I want to say is that parallel to that history is a history of resistance, and the words and the newspapers and the churches and the sermons and the marches. And when we neglect one part of that history, we end up neglecting the other part.
What do you think Californians in particular should be thinking about if they want to observe Juneteenth, both in terms of history and going forward?
In California, we have to get beyond the happy Spanish days, and how wonderful the missions were, and reinterpret the history and provide teachers with tools. I think we cannot go forward until we have a deeper, truer understanding of our past.
History is like any other product — we manufacture history all the time. And that product is partly why people are in the streets now.
OK, my last question: What is the most common misconception about California that you would just magically correct in every Californian’s head? Maybe you can’t pick just one —
Actually I do have one! People think that black people came to California during World War II to work in the defense industry. And that’s when black people showed up.
I’m not only a native Californian, I’m a third-generation Californian. Both sets of my great-grandparents and their families on my mother’s side came to California in the 1890s. One set came from Louisville — that great-grandfather was a barber. The other set came from New Orleans. So I knew that was wrong because of my own family.
[Read about the pioneering black historian Delilah Beasley.]
Now, a lot of people came to California during World War II — millions moved to work in the war industries and it was transformative, dramatic.
But what people really don’t know about is not only were black people here since before California was a state, they were in cities, in farmland, they were ranchers, running newspapers and enterprises. The whole premise of my book is that from the beginning, it’s been a small population — black people are 7 percent of California’s population and that’s always been true.
But what is fascinating is what an outsize influence African-Americans have had on the civic life of California, on the cultural life of California. It’s been a very pivotal population starting in the 19th century and going all the way through the 21st century.
[Find The Times’s Juneteenth coverage here.]
Here’s what else to know this weekend
We often link to sites that limit access for nonsubscribers. We appreciate your reading Times coverage, but we also encourage you to support local news if you can.
After weeks of confusion and pushback, most notably in Orange County, over mandates that people wear masks to prevent the spread of Covid-19, Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered all Californians to wear face coverings in most public settings. [CalMatters]
On Thursday, “Dreamers” who were afraid that the Trump administration’s attempts to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program would force them from the country got a reprieve — though temporary — from the Supreme Court. [The New York Times]
Pacific Gas & Electric agreed to pay a $3.5 million fine for causing the state’s deadliest wildfire, the Camp Fire, which killed 84 people. The utility pleaded guilty to 84 counts of involuntary manslaughter. [The New York Times]
The Last of Us Part II is being released with eerily perfect timing: The video game, made by a company based in Santa Monica, is about tribal tensions and cycles of violence in a world undone by a global pandemic. [The New York Times]
And Finally …
Summer is here, so now is an especially good time to learn about the history of black Californians’ unequal access to leisure spaces, like Bruce’s Beach.
In the early 1900s, the spot, now a fairly nondescript park in Manhattan Beach with a view of the water, was the site of a popular, thriving black-owned resort.
Infuriatingly, and predictably, the resort became a target for white supremacists. Residents campaigned to shut down the resort by taking the site over for the park.
But in recent weeks, black Californians have reclaimed the park as a place to gather and protest.
My colleague Lily Benson made a short video about Bruce’s Beach, which you can watch now in our Instagram Story, @nytimes.
California Today goes live at 6:30 a.m. Pacific time weekdays. Tell us what you want to see: [email protected]. Were you forwarded this email? Sign up for California Today here and read every edition online here.
Jill Cowan grew up in Orange County, went to school at U.C. Berkeley and has reported all over the state, including the Bay Area, Bakersfield and Los Angeles — but she always wants to see more. Follow along here or on Twitter.
California Today is edited by Julie Bloom, who grew up in Los Angeles and graduated from U.C. Berkeley.