The Oberlin community and College legacy celebrates a shared commitment to social justice and activism, a dedication to artistic and academic excellence, and a willingness to challenge social conventions. From its beginnings, Oberlin opposed slavery and embraced freedom for all who chose to live, learn, and labor in the community. The annual Juneteenth celebration in Oberlin and in many communities nationwide brings to the fore this important commemoration in American history.
Juneteenth derives its name from the date—June 19, 1865— when union soldiers, led by Major General Gordon Granger, arrived in Galveston, Texas, with news that the civil war had ended and the enslaved in Texas were free, based on the Emancipation Proclamation issued by President Abraham Lincoln two years earlier in January 1863. It took several more years for Lincoln’s decree to spread nationwide and a constitutional amendment to finally end slavery in the United States and its jurisdictions.
Granger’s message formed the basis for Juneteenth festivities, and today Juneteenth is the oldest known celebration commemorating the end of slavery in the United States.
On July 17, 1992, Oberlin held its first community event specifically focusing on the history of its African American residents. Presented in conjunction with the annual summer cultural celebration called Oberlin Heritage Days, and organized by local downtown merchant and current Oberlin artist-in-residence Adenike Sharpley, the event took place in central Tappan Square. The festival continued annually for three years, and, in 1995, Heritage Days grew to include the national Juneteenth festival.
While the national observance focuses on the historical significance of emancipation, Oberlin’s festival focuses on the contributions of its African American citizens and the role of the community and the College in the abolitionist movement. On June 8, 2004, Oberlin City Council passed a resolution to establish Juneteenth as an officially recognized day of commemoration.
Soon after, local organizers formed Juneteenth Oberlin, Inc. to facilitate and coordinate the community recognition, celebration, promotion, and understanding of the festival.
Juneteenth today celebrates African American freedom while encouraging self-development and respect for all cultures. Oberlin’s history of commitment to abolition and the cause of freedom make this community uniquely qualified to celebrate Juneteenth.
Sources: The Handbook of Texas Online, Ohio History Central: An online Encyclopedia of Ohio History, The Charters of Freedom: A New World at Hand, Juneteenth Oberlin, Inc.
Photo credit: Elvis Santana