Dora Abney: “I says “Juneteenth,” and then to me, everybody blossomed.”
Juneteenth celebrates the ending of slavery in the United States. President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, in the middle of the Civil War, but word of the Proclamation didn’t reach many slaves until much later. It wasn’t until June 19, 1865, two months after the Civil War ended, that slaves in Texas learned that they were free. In Texas, former slaves and their descendents continued to celebrate the anniversary of their freedom every year on June 19th, which came to be known as “Juneteenth.” As African Americans migrated to other parts of the country, they took the holiday with them. The first documented Juneteenth celebration in Seattle took place in 1890.
Dora Abney, Director of Twinks Early Childhood Education Center and Preschool in Columbia City, is originally from Marshall, Texas, where her family celebrated Juneteenth. She moved to Seattle in the early 1960s. Here she shares her memories of Juneteenth and explains the importance of the holiday for African Americans — and others — today.
What I can remember about Juneteenth is mostly my dad, my dad died when I was about eleven. We used to celebrate it every summer, and to me it was a joyful thing. It was hot.
I just remember how my dad used to say, you know, “Juneteenth, that’s a big thing for us,” and by being born in the South, I kinda understood what he was saying. [I saw] what was going on, but didn’t really understand why. I got the idea that it was for freedom, but the history behind it was really really not told, because it’s a sad situation, what had really happened. As I got older it was more explained to me.
But he would always go out and shop like it was Christmas, and he would buy food, picnic stuff, and we’d be out — whether it fell on a Sunday or Monday, it was a holiday to us. And everybody in the neighborhood, everybody in the city took off. The whole city was shut down. And we would picnic away. My father, he would always sing, and he would play ball, and he was just excited. All the mens that I could recognize, they played ball.
I don’t know how you explain it. Some people say like the Fourth of July, but the Fourth of July was like, it was okay, but I think this was more better. This particular day, it was more exciting for my father, that’s what I‘m saying. But now I recognize why, because from reading, and observing some of the past, [I learned] that was the day they considered [they got their] freedom. I guess it was his dad’s dad’s dad — it was passed down. They understood what it meant, and why that day was so meaningful to them.
When we came to Washington State it kind of faded out of the family, people didn’t celebrate it. They said, “What do you mean, Juneteenth, what that’s about?” I was explaining to them that we used to take off, and they said “We don’t celebrate that,” so I figured I’d let it slide. Then about four years ago, when I started at the daycare center, I brought it up again. I said, “We need to celebrate Juneteenth. The kids don’t know what it’s about.” So in 2000 we had a Juneteenth celebration at Twinks, where we blocked off the street, we sold barbecue, and the kids played, and it was exciting. I says “Juneteenth,” and then to me, everybody blossomed. And all of a sudden everybody did know about it. You know, you don’t hear about it and then all of a sudden, “Yeah, I heard about that, what is it about?” So we started digging up information so we could put it out, so people understand what it is.
But again, like I said, it’s a thing that my dad did. All I can remember is that we packed up and we went to the baseball field – every year it would be somewhere different. And we would just celebrate. The men and the women would just dance. The kids would look, ‘cause you know, we didn’t know. They explained the basics, but we didn’t know. To them, ‘cause they lived the life, they understood it. So now, I’m trying to feed that little knowledge that I know to the other children — not only just black, everyone — to understand that. It’s freedom.
I was explaining to some of my staff members about the Ethiopians and the Somalis, and over in Jerusalem — I’ve been to Jerusalem and Cairo and all those places, and they are fighting. And I said, sooner or later when they say, “The fighting is over with,” you’ll celebrate freedom. Theirs may be called August Tenth, or April Fifth or something like that. But I assume that once people get them wars over with, people celebrates that. All these dates that we do celebrate right now is from the results of something. So Juneteenth is one of the ones that as blacks, we celebrate. And it’s pretty, Juneteenth. Which is June Nineteenth.
What kind of foods did you eat at the Juneteenth celebrations?
Red represented the blood that was shed during slavery. [We had red pop], red velvet cake, ice cream. Watermelon. And chicken barbecue, barbecued ribs. The blood was really flowing!
Everything was fresh because in June it’s at the end of the harvest for the South. So we would have corn on the cob, fresh everything — fresh chicken out of the yard. They got a pig in the ground, cook it all night. They’d put on a fire and the ribs be on bars hanging over the fire, not like what they do now, with a grill. They just hang it. It would cook, they’d roll it over.
What the women made was cake and pie. And the rest of it the mens did. We don’t see that now. The Hawaiians does it. The Samoans, they celebrate as a family, mens take over and do, but you don’t see a group of mens, family people, get together a whole community, and cook. You don’t hardly see it any more. The men would do the whole work!
Juneteenth celebrates the ending of slavery in the United States. President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, in the middle of the Civil War. But word of the Proclamation didn’t reach many slaves until much later. It wasn’t until June 19, 1865, two months after the Civil War ended, that slaves in Texas learned that they were free.
On that day in Galveston, Texas, General Granger of the Union Army stood on the steps of Ashton Villa and read General Order #3, announcing that “all slaves are free.” The crowd of ex-slaves immediately began “leaping, swaying, and whirling in unrehearsed glee.” People sang, laughed, cried, and jumped up and down with joy. A former slave recalled, “We was all walking on golden clouds, Hallelujah!” One mother, upon learning the news, lifted her baby high and told her “Tamar, you’se free! You’se free, Tamar!” “Afterward, she checked her free baby’s face, hands, and feet as though she had just given birth to her.”
Former slaves and their descendents continued to celebrate the anniversary of their freedom every year on June 19th, which came to be known as “Juneteenth.” As African Americans migrated to other parts of the country, they took the holiday with them. The first documented Juneteenth celebration in Seattle took place in 1890.
Today Juneteenth is celebrated all over America. Traditions vary from place to place, but may include parades, all-day baseball games, prayers, songs, dances, and barbecue picnics. Red cake and red pop are served, symbolizing the blood that was shed during the Civil War. The heart of the celebration is the reading of General Order #3 by a community elder. As the words are read, everyone listening can imagine how they sounded on June 19th, 1865 to the black people of Galveston, Texas, who learned that day that they were free.
HEADQUARTERS DISTRICT OF TEXAS
GALVESTON, TEXAS, June 19, 1865
General Order #3
The people are informed that in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property, between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them, become that between employer and hired labor. The freed are advised to remain at their present homes, and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts; and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.
By order of
F.W. Emery, Maj. & A.A.G.
For more information about Juneteenth:
Juneteenth: A Celebration of Freedom, by Charles A. Taylor
Juneteenth: Freedom Day, by Muriel Miller Branch
A Juneteenth picnic often includes red cake and red pop, symbolizing the blood shed during slavery and the Civil War.
RED VELVET CAKE
with Cream Cheese Frosting
- 1/2 cup shortening
- 1 1/2 cups sugar
- 2 eggs
- 1 tsp. vanilla
- 1 tsp. butter flavoring
- 1 1/2 oz bottle of red color
- 3 Tbs. cocoa
- 2 1/2 cups sifted cake flour
- 1 cup buttermilk
- 1 tsp. salt
- 1 Tbs. vinegar
- 1 tsp. baking soda
Cream shortening and sugar. Beat in eggs, vanilla, and butter flavor. Make a paste of cocoa and food coloring and add it to the first mixture. Alternately add flour and buttermilk. Mix baking soda and vinegar in a small bowl; add to batter. Bake in three 9” or 10” pans for 20-25 minutes at 350o. Let cool completely before frosting.
- 6 oz. cream cheese, softened
- 6 Tbs. butter, softened
- 1 tsp. vanilla
- 2 cups sifted powdered sugar
Blend all ingredients until smooth.
by Mikala Woodward
Excerpted from Rainier Valley Food Stories Cookbook