Londen Nelson Gravesite - Louden

Thu, Jun 18, 2020

History of Juneteenth: Part 1

Until Black lives are free, no one is free. [1]

When you envision freedom, what comes to mind? What do you feel? Who do you see?

Here in Santa Cruz County

Kids running around the park playing tag. Families sitting over a blanket enjoying their picnic. Dancers poetically moving across the grass. Hands up welcoming drum beats, melodies, and harmonies. The rise and fall of a spoken word artist’s cadence. The sweet and savory scent of homemade food ushering in everyone gathered at Laurel Park, the backyard of the Louden [2] Nelson Community Center. This beautiful union of Black neighbors, fully and freely, is Juneteenth in the City of Santa Cruz and has been hosted here since 1991.

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Juneteenth (short for “June Nineteenth”) is a celebration commemorating the ending of the enslavement [3] of African Americans in the United States. It is a celebration of the struggle for freedom, existence, history, and future of enslaved African Americans. Juneteenth honors those who demanded freedom, those who gained freedom, and those who did not experience freedom.

Juneteenth is also a time where our Black neighbors remind us that it was not until 1865, 89 years after the first USA Independence Day, did the Black community begin celebrating their freedom. Depending on who you ask, the word “free” will be defined very simply or take us on a conscious journey that we may not have been aware existed – or believe that it could.

For this blog, free will be shared as the experience enslaved African Americans demanded for many years to have.

National History

When reading up on Juneteenth, many will learn about the start of 1863, because that year the Emancipation Proclamation, issued by Abraham Lincoln, was put into effect. It ordered that the over 3 million enslaved Black people in the 11 Confederate States, were now legally free. For reference: in 1860, approximately 89% of the Black population was enslaved in all of the USA – this includes the Northern Union states.

Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Arkansas, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia got the news. Based on the behaviors of Texans still having masters and enslaved people, it seemed that they did not get the news, as some say. While others speak truths and say that Texas refused to acknowledge this executive order.

Another year that is mentioned is 1865 because it was not until that year that General Gordon Granger, along with thousands of his troops, stood on the balcony of the Ashton Villa of Galvenstone, TX and read General Order No. 3:

“The people of Texas 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 rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired laborer."

This happened on June 19th, 1865, two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation was put into effect.

There is much to highlight and recognize in this historical moment of defiance. One is recognizing that Texas had the responsibility to free the enslaved[4] and chose not to for over two and a half years. It was not until the presence of 1800 troops and a demand from a General that the people of Texas made that change and were forced to acknowledge the freedom of African Americans.

Another point worth noting is that Juneteenth came to be from a long history of African American uprisings – small and large – demanding their freedom and that of others. Freedom was not given by the government. It came from the organizing of Harriet Tubman, the work of abolitionists like Frederick Douglas, the stories of hope by free formerly enslaved[5] , and the continual pressure and demand for the government to live up to its own values. These were actions led by African Americans because of their desire to be free. Juneteenth came into existence because of them.

More is to come. Stay tuned for writing by Dr. Aaron Jones, Associate Director for Black Student Success of the African American Resource and Cultural Center at the University of California Santa Cruz.
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Juneteenth Events & Resources

  • A peaceful march has been organized for Santa Cruz youth on June 19th, 2020 at 5:45pm meeting at Louden Nelson Community Center.
  • The official Santa Cruz Juneteenth Facebook page is sharing alternative events and is sharing resources.
  • Louden Nelson Community Center is celebrating the folks that make Juneteenth happen.
  • The Instagram account Protest Bay Area has shared a few different marches happening around the Bay Area this weekend.
  • Mercury News rounded up all Juneteenth celebrations happening around the Bay.

As we come together virtually and in person, whichever feels safest to you, I encourage us to celebrate the many Black lives who have been struggling and rising up for the freedom of Black life. I encourage us to think about what celebrations are going on this weekend and who is leading them. Are they celebrating the freedom of Black and African Americans? Are they honoring Black lives who lost their lives due to violence accepted by the state?

Lastly, I encourage us to imagine a country where Juneteenth is recognized and celebrated on a national level. What comes to mind? What do you feel? Who do you see?

Sign the petition to make Juneteenth a National Holiday here.

Read Part 2

Cover Image Information: Members of the London Nelson Memorial committee from 1953 are shown at Nelson’s grave in Evergreen Cemetery. From left to right are C.H. Brown, chairman of the memorial committee; Frank Guliford, president Santa Cruz Improvement Club; Rev. Dennis E. Franklin, NAACP; Rev. W. M. Brent, pastor, Santa Cruz Missionary Baptist Church; Herman Gowder, secretary, Memorial Committee; and Henry Pratt, president, F. & A. club.


[1] This quote is an altered version of a Fannie Lou Hamer (1917 - 1977) quote “No one is free, until we are all free.” Hamer was a community organizer, leader in the civil rights movement, and a voting and women's rights activist This quote is the anchor for this article and will be seen in many versions throughout this Juneteenth blog series.

[2] London Nelson was a free Black man who arrived in Santa Cruz in 1853 at 53 years old. Upon the making of his gravemarker, his name was misspelled to Louden Nelson. Nelson’s plot can be found and honoured at Evergreen Cemetery.

[3] Enslaved/enslavement: term used in place of “slave” to represent the accuracy of people who were treated as another’s property.

[4] edit “the enslaved” (slaves)

[5] edit “free formerly enslaved” (freed slaves)