Wornie Reed: Juneteenth represents freedom
June 18, 2020
For one day in June, Americans around the country celebrate freedom.
On June 19, 155 years ago, Black slaves in Texas received a long-overdue message — they were free. The Civil War had ended a few months prior to June 19, but Texas didn’t get the news right away.
What began then as a freedom celebration in the Lone Star State has spread throughout the United States. The day is called Juneteenth.
But this year’s celebration may carry more weight than in the past in light of recent protests and riots across the country in response to the killings of Black men and women. Some events also may be smaller or canceled altogether because of COVID-19.
This week Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam proposed making Juneteenth a state holiday and announced that state offices would be closed this year on June 19. Virginia Tech also will close to observe the historic day.
Wornie Reed, director of the Race and Social Policy Center and a professor of Africana studies and sociology in Virginia Tech’s College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, recently weighed in on the traditions and significance of Juneteenth. Reed, who marched alongside Martin Luther King Jr. and saw more than 30 of his speeches, also discussed how Americans should respond to racial injustice.
Q. Why did the people of Texas not know that the Civil War had ended and that Black slaves were free?
Reed: It’s not clear exactly why they were not told. One story told is that the plantation owners didn’t want Blacks to know they were free because they wanted their next crop.
Another one was that something happened to the messenger as they were on their way to tell them.
Q. How did Juneteenth grow into a widespread event?
Reed: Juneteenth to me is an unlikely holiday. This was basically a Texas celebration. I had barely heard of Juneteenth growing up in Alabama. They celebrated in Texas into the 20th century, then it waned around World War II, and came back briefly around 1950. Then it wasn’t celebrated for about 25 years.
In the mid-70s, it began to be celebrated again, and it’s grown ever since. One of the reasons for its growth was the movement of Blacks from Texas to the rest of the country.
Q. What does a typical Juneteenth celebration look like?
Reed: There is usually an event the evening before, where there’s an assembly and a teenager reads the Texas proclamation. It’s always read on June 19 as well.
The reading of that proclamation is very key. That’s the center of the celebration. It also surrounds food, which usually includes red velvet cake.
It’s African Americans feeling that they are connecting with their history and doing something related to that that has historical importance.
Q. Why is red velvet cake often served on June 19?
Reed: As I understand it, it’s because of the blood, the red blood of African Americans. That might be a meaning that some people assigned along the way that some of us learned. Or it might be that that was just a favorite cake.
Q. Should Juneteenth become a recognized national holiday?
Reed: I don’t think it warrants a national holiday, because it wasn’t even national. If you wanted to have a holiday surrounding this, it would be the Emancipation Proclamation [which established that all slaves were free who lived in states that were not Union-controlled]. It was written by President Abraham Lincoln in September of 1862 and was put into effect on Jan. 1, 1863. It was a national decision, so it’s a national holiday and it’s more meaningful.
Q. What is your advice to people, including the Virginia Tech community, on how to fight racial injustice?
Reed: We should spend more time trying to change racist policies and practices and less time trying to change individual prejudices. You don’t get very far with the latter.
People in our area, around Virginia Tech, should feel as I think many do that they are part of what’s going on. Therefore, be a part of the solution and don’t just leave it to others.
Interview by Jenny Kincaid Boone