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Juneteenth and Folklore

This guide aims to help researchers explore the folklore origins of the now federally recognized holiday, Juneteenth,

About Bill Wiggins

Photo of Dr. William H. Wiggins, Jr.

William H. Wiggins Jr. (1934-2016) began his doctoral studies in folklore at IU Bloomington in 1969 with an academic background in theology. As a student he served as the first graduate associate instructor in the Department of African American Studies. With the completion of his dissertation in 1974, he was promoted to assistant professor of Afro-American Studies.

In his 1974 IU PhD dissertation,"Free At Last": A Study of Afro-American Emancipation Day Celebrations, Wiggins chronicled the varieties of local Emancipation Day celebrations around the country. It was a pioneering study, using not just written records but also the methods of a folklorist: fieldwork, participant observation, and interviews with and letters from participants. He later published a book -- O freedom! : Afro-American Emancipation celebrations (University of Tennessee Press,1987) -- and numerous other articles on this topic, long before anyone else was paying scholarly attention to this important popular observance. 

Wiggins was a beloved professor in the folklore and Afro-American studies departments at IU for more than 34 years. Many people contributed to making Juneteenth a national holiday, but his work as a folklorist of Juneteenth was foundational.

"He was especially drawn to the vernacular of African Americans and coupled his deep interest with his analytical skills to plumb the communal ethos, wisdom, wit, and heroism of African American expression. “O Freedom”, a book-length study of African American Emancipation Celebrations, drew attention to what is widely known as 'Juneteenth.'"

--Memorial for Dr. Wiggins

"A colleague and friend of mine named Bill Wiggins wrote a book called O Freedom some years back. He was a professor at Indiana University. This is nothing new to my folklore friends, but people have been asking me about this new national holiday, so I thought I'd post this. O Freedom was the first real study and acknowledgement of Juneteenth and Emancipation Day celebrations, and I fully believe it helped set in motion events that would lead, eventually, to today. One thing about nationalizing Juneteenth is that it blurs the fact that Emancipation celebrations have been traditionally held on other dates in different regions of the country (in a similar way, Memorial Day nationalizes the many local Decoration Day events held around the country). Because they are frequently viewed as the African American Fourth of July, they are often held on the Fifth of July as a kind of continuation and contrast to the Fourth. Emancipation celebrations such as Juneteenth often involve barbeques, oratory, singing of hymns, and family reunions."

-Jack Santino,, posted June 17, 2021

More information on Dr. Wiggins:

Select List of Works by William H. Wiggins

Documentary Films by William H. Wiggins