Preview: Chicago Commemorates Emancipation with Juneteenth Celebrations 

On paper, the Emancipation Proclamation freed enslaved Americans on January 1, 1863, during the middle of the Civil War. But not all chattel slaves were immediately manumitted. Union General Gordon Granger’s regiment went to Galveston, Texas, on June 19, 1865, to announce that “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 becomes that between employer and hired labors.”

The order also encouraged the newly freed to remain with their enslavers, but many former slaves scattered, leaving Texas to seek separated family members and better lives. The anniversary had several early monikers, like Freedom, Jubilee, or Second Independence Day, but the name Juneteenth stuck. Jim Crow laws and economic hardships during the Great Depression slowed down annual celebrations, but Dr. King’s Poor People’s March and the Civil Rights Movement of the '60s revived the commemoration. Chicago has its own observances of the history of Juneteenth.

American racists continue to obfuscate this history, the facts and equal rights even today. Most people don’t know that the executive Proclamation took two years to reach all corners of this country, and that the resulting Juneteenth celebration is an important milestone of American history, declared as a federal holiday in 2021, the first new national holiday since Martin Luther King Day was created in 1983. 

Chicagoland offers many ways to celebrate the holiday during the week leading up to June 19th, including BBQs, block parties, markets, art exhibits, performances and family activities. South Side “TikTok historian” Shermann “Dilla” Thomas regularly gives African American history tours with his Chicago Mahogany company, and plans special programs on Saturday, June 18, and Sunday, June 19. 

Dilla said he learned about Juneteenth as a kid, when his father helped prepare his brother for WGN’s Know Your Heritage high school quiz show. He said that the celebration is uniquely American because of the involvement of soldiers, and that it became a day for all Americans, which, as he said, “is dope.” He says the portmanteau of June and Nineteenth is also American, combining the Black dialect, the slave vernacular, into one word, which he terms “perfect, because it now sounds like a holiday.” 

Shermann “Dilla” Thomas.

His Chicago Mahogany Bronzeville tours regularly visit many of Chicago’s important Civil War sites and burial grounds, which exalt the importance of this city to the Union’s efforts to end slavery. As a Black dad himself, Dilla also likes that Juneteenth is often on, or close to, Father’s Day, which offers a chance for families to learn their history together (and to combat the myth of Black father absenteeism). He also reminds us that Memorial Day was another holiday originally created by and for Black Americans around the same period to commemorate war dead. 

But, amidst his pride in telling these important stories, Dilla also continues to fight the racism surrounding these more accurate depictions of American history, and other aspects of trauma capitalism (like when Walmart recently pulled their Juneteenth red velvet ice cream). When he posted his special Juneteenth tour schedule on Facebook, he received comments like “does this tour come with a bulletproof vest?”

When asked about recent (and ongoing) Republican slams about big city gun violence, where mentioning cities like Chicago is a dog-whistle meaning African American communities, Dilla encourages those GOP legislators to attend to their own issues. He mentions specific leadership failures like Texas’s failing power grid (Dilla’s day job is with ComEd, so he knows power). He also faults Chicago media deciders and tourism publications, which gather stories about weekly violence, then publish sensationalist, clickbait headlines every Monday. Those predictable stories are then picked up around the country and used to demonize large, liberal cities and Black communities. Dilla would rather know more about the families involved, their lives and not just their deaths, and wants to promote and share a more equitable Chicago reality. 

This move towards balance includes spending more time remembering and congratulating the Black Lives Matter protests around the country and city over the past few years. Dilla credits BLM awareness campaigns as driving the diversity, equity and inclusion positions, policies and programs now ubiquitous in most US companies. He hopes that perfection won’t be the enemy of progress as citizens and residents seek to complete their balanced American educations.

Fellow white people: Pick and attend some of the many city-wide Juneteenth options available throughout the week. Take a quick, free Khan Academy course about the event. Enhance your knowledge of history, because, as Desmond Tutu said, “my humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together.” 

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Karin McKie

Karin McKie is a Chicago freelance writer, cultural factotum and activism concierge. She jams econo.