Juneteenth: A Day of Celebration, and of Reckoning

June 19th, or Juneteenth, is the 156th anniversary of the emancipation of enslaved people in Galveston, Texas in 1865. Though Lincoln delivered his famous Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, enslavers hid the news and refused to emancipate their slaves until the Union Army arrived to enforce the law. In Galveston, it was General Gordon Granger who read the proclamation in Galveston on June 19th and sparked joyous celebrations among the newly free population.

Black people, especially in Texas, have celebrated Juneteenth every year since 1865, but the United States government – and most of the general public – only recently recognized the occasion. On Thursday (June 17th), President Biden signed a bill officially declaring Juneteenth a federal holiday (link 1). The Senate approved the bill unanimously.

Juneteenth is now a day of celebration for all Americans, but it is also a day of reckoning across the United States. General Granger, for example, declared the end of slavery then directed free Black people to stay on plantations and work under contracts with their former owners (link 2). In other words, emancipation from slavery did not mean freedom from white supremacy. Juneteenth ended legalized slavery, but the fight against racism had only just begun.

Segregation and Exclusion in RMNP

A black and white photo of a mountain village.Further, the fight extended north to Colorado and into Rocky Mountain National Park. The history and expulsion of native people in this region is well-documented (link 3), but Black people’s voices are mostly absent from the early history of RMNP. In the 1930s and 40s when the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) transformed the region, Black people rarely appeared in local records except as participants and/or characters in minstrel shows (link 4).

In addition, Black enrollees, as well as Chicano and Spanish-speaking corps members faced daily discrimination and racial slurs. CCC barracks were not officially segregated, only because there were not enough Black people to justify constructing a separate building. However, unofficial segregation likely occurred within the barracks (link 5).

Segregation also extended to the early tourism industry in RMNP. The McGraw Ranch, like many others, advertised minstrel shows and operated as a “Restricted ranch” (closed to Black and Jewish people) (link 6). Though Rocky was ostensibly preserved for the enjoyment of all, non-white people’s access to the park was, at best, extremely limited.

In July 1964, two weeks after the 99th anniversary of Juneteenth, the Civil Rights Act became law and marked another momentous occasion in the struggle against discrimination. It proved that Juneteenth was not the end of racism, but the beginning of a long fight for Black people to access the same rights that white people enjoyed.

Moving Forward

Two men cutting a log in the woods.The legacy of segregation at RMNP still affects modern-day park operations. As of 2011, 95% of visitors were white, 4% Hispanic/Latino, 2% Asian, and less than 1% of any other ethnic/racial group (link 7), whereas Colorado’s population is less than 87% white and almost 5% Black, and the US population is less than 60% white. Thus, Juneteenth is as relevant today as it was 156 years ago in Galveston.

Some scholars blame “green gentrification” as a modern barrier to entry to America’s National Parks (link 8). The high cost of living near parks, for example, prevents impoverished people from easy access to the most pristine spaces in the United States. Further, historic discrimination prevented many Black families from building family traditions/connections in the National Park system.

On the other hand, the Park Service has committed itself to increasing relevancy, diversity, and inclusion at RMNP (link 9). Since 2011, we have seen increased diversity among park staff, visitors, and Corps members. In addition, emphasizing cultural history and underrepresented groups has become a key interpretive goal for park staff.

As the Park Service celebrates this new federal holiday, we should remember that Juneteenth was one part of a struggle that continues through the present day. The Conservancy and the Park Service are working to make Rocky Mountain National Park a welcoming environment for all visitors. We hope you will join us in celebrating Juneteenth and pushing for a more inclusive RMNP!

Nolan Dahm
2021 Conservancy Fellow

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