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Black and white medium portrait of Ralph and
Ralph Ellison and his wife, Fanny McConnell Ellison, in 1960. Photo: David Gahr. Prints and Photographs Division.

Ralph Ellison’s “Juneteenth” Lives on at the Library

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—This is a guest post by Barbara Bair, a historian in the Manuscript Division. It appears in the May-June issue of the Library of Congress Magazine.

The nation will pause for a national holiday on Monday to mark Juneteenth, the anniversary of the day when enslaved people in Texas finally heard the news of emancipation at the end of the Civil War. The Library preserves the history of that day in many ways, including Ralph Ellison’s delirium-dream of a second novel, “Juneteenth,” in which he took a deep dive into the complexities of race and violence and the costs of transformation in America.

The novel, like the struggle for equality and justice itself, was a long time in the making — a wrestling with the self and a perpetual work in progress. Ellison began to formulate the book in thoughts and notes in the 1950s, during the era of Brown v. Board of Education and the 1952 publication of his masterpiece, “Invisible Man.” But its genesis was longer, stemming from Ellison’s difficult childhood and the world he witnessed around him in his youth and as a student at Tuskegee Institute.

Ellison died in 1994, leaving behind over 2,000 pages of drafts and notes and revised episodes and passages for what he thought might be one book, or maybe three. All are now in the Ralph Ellison Papers at the Library.

A beige sheet of typewirtten lines, including dialogue and descriptions.
A manuscript page from “Juneteenth,” with handwritten notations. Manuscript Division.

With the blessings of his widow, Fanny Ellison, the Manuscript Division preserved and organized the papers and Ellison’s literary executor, John F. Callahan, crafted his words into the posthumous version of the novel as it is known by readers today. Callahan and Adam Bradley produced a revised version under the title “Three Days Before the Shooting …” in 2010.

“Juneteenth” is deeply rooted in historic struggle across time. It is titled for a day of revelation, also known as Freedom Day, June 19, 1865.

While the jubilation of Juneteenth was real and the day remains a holiday of celebration and independence, it also signifies — like Ellison’s unfinished, morphing, questioning novel — that the full work of freedom is longstanding and intergenerational and that the forces of chaos and human failures are strong.

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Comments (5)

  1. I’m very proud to have The Library Of Congress to hold up Mr.Ellison’s Work
    “Juneteenth”as a testament to a people’s
    Struggle for freedom. Although there is still a lot of work to be done toward certain areas,Let us all come together to celebrate such a date

  2. Thank you!

  3. I will be celebrating Juneteenth in Boca Raton, Florida on Monday, June 19th

  4. So… Can anyone come and read the papers?
    Will the LOC have any events ( readings, exhibits, lectures, concerts, anything) commemorating Juneteenth?

    • Hi there,

      The papers are open to anyone with a researcher’s card, which only takes a few minutes. Registration is in the Jefferson Building and anyone at the information booth or a docent can point you to it. Ellison’s collection is in the Manuscript Reading Room in the Madison Building. The Main Reading Room will be open for visitors on Juneteenth. For

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