Paul Greenberg

This is the first year Juneteenth has been officially observed in Arkansas. It was about time. Because the 19th of June was an unofficial Freedom Day long before it was decreed Juneteenth Independence Day by the Arkansas state Legislature.

Some holidays don't need an official proclamation. They spread by word of mouth, just the way news of the Emancipation Proclamation rippled out of the port of Galveston through the old Trans-Mississippi Department of the defeated Confederacy.

It was on June 19, 1865, that Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger, U.S.A., landed at Galveston with the news that The War was over and, by the way, Mr. Lincoln had freed the slaves two and a half years before.

It would take a while, a long while, for the tidings to slowly filter through every plantation this side of the Mississippi. And even longer - 140 years! - for Juneteenth to be officially recognized in Arkansas.

Through all those years, Juneteenth was a word-of-mouth holiday, more custom than law, more story than decree. One day every June, the downtown streets and squares of small towns in this part of the South would suddenly fill with black folks, mystifying the white ones till they remembered: Oh, yeah, this is their holiday.

As if freedom were not indivisible. It's taken us in Arkansas a long, long time to recognize it, but freedom is never just theirs, it is


Once again Americans are divided over a war of liberation, and there are those who can't see the connection between another people's freedom and our own in the wider world.

Much like freedom itself, Juneteenth spread only slowly, unevenly. Just as jazz, another great American invention with its roots in the African-American past, came up The River from New Orleans, so Juneteenth came out of Galveston more folklore than law, its future always uncertain, its origins half forgotten. But there was always something about Juneteenth that got hearts beating and feet tapping.

Some holidays wax and wane. Freedom isn't always proclaimed on a given day, like July 4, 1776. It doesn't always arrive among signs and wonders as the waters part and a Promised Land beckons. It's not always a pillar of fire by night; sometimes it's just a pillar of cloud afar off. Sometimes freedom is more a mundane legal process than a Voice from the Heavens proclaiming liberty throughout the land.

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.