On Wednesday, the US Congress passed a bill declaring June 19 (Juneteenth) a federal holiday. And President Biden signed it into law on Thursday. It is uncharacteristic for
things to happen so fast in Washington, but this recognition of the importance of Juneteenth is long overdue.
Juneteenth – also known as Jubilee Day, Freedom Day, Black Independence Day -- was not an event taught in schools until recently. It is, in fact, the day commemorating the end of slavery in the US.
Most of us grew up believing that with the signing of President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation in January 1863 all slaves in our country were freed. Unfortunately, that is not the truth. The decree declared that “all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.” So, the proclamation did not free all slaves, it simply meant that those slaves living in states not under Union control would be considered free men, women, and children by the federal government and that the Black men could serve in the Union Army. It did not apply to the border states of Missouri, Kentucky, Delaware, and Maryland which had not yet joined the Confederacy.
Published in newspapers throughout the US, read aloud in public places, the Emancipation Proclamation prompted many slaves to leave plantations, head North and for many Black men to enlist.
Texas, though, simply failed to acknowledge the document. Slaves in Texas did not know they had been freed until June 19, 1865, when Union Major General Gordon Granger showed up in Galveston delivering the news the Civil War had ended and that all slaves had been freed.
A little bit of history. In 1619 an English privateer ship, the White Lion, landed at Point Comfort near the settlement of Jamestown. On board were 20+ men and women captured in what today’s Angola. They were bound, given new names – European first names but not last names, then sold in exchange for land and provisions. Their skills in cultivating crops such as rice and sugar were deemed valuable, but only as chattel. This was the start of 400 years of enslavement of African Americans based solely on race.
Even today there are voices that cry out that the Fourth of July is Independence Day for all Americans and there is no need to call out Juneteenth. In fact, Frederick Douglass gave a famous speech that captured reality.
“What to a Slave is the Fourth of July? The Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn … Fellow Citizens, I am not wanting in respect for the fathers of this republic. The signer
s of the Declaration of Independence were brave men. They were great men, too, great enough to give frame to a great age. It does not often happen to a nation to raise, at one time, such a number of truly great men. The point from which I am compelled to view them is not, certainly, the most favorable; and yet I cannot contemplate their great deeds with less than admiration. They were statesmen, patriots and heroes, and for the good they did, and the principles they contended for, I will unite with you to honor their memory…. Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us? And am I, therefore, called upon to bring our humble offering to the national altar, and to confess the benefits and express devout gratitude for the blessings resulting from your independence to us?”
Let’s honor reality and embrace the opportunity to recognize, celebrate and value Juneteenth! Let’s find ways to acknowledge differences, inequities and a history that is fraught with injustice. Let’s understand that full racial equity and inclusion are not yet fully part of the American experience. We’ll do better when we can celebrate both July 4 and Juneteenth throughout the year.
June 18, 2021 Your ELT Team: Andrea, Art, Carlos, Erica, Lori, Rene and Stephanie