Why Juneteenth offers the unifying, universal message that we all need right now
By widely celebrating the spirit and message of the Juneteenth holiday, we can transform our shameful slave legacy into a global celebration of freedom.
This week, I learned that nearly a dozen of my friends and family from all walks of life, all well-educated, and many of which were Texans themselves, had genuinely never heard of Juneteenth.
Juneteenth Freedom Day, also sometimes referred to as Juneteenth Independence Day or Black Independence Day, commemorates the June 19, 1865 announcement by Union General Gordon Granger in Galveston, Texas, who revealed to Texas slaves that the Civil War had ended. General Order Number 3 began most significantly with:
“The people of Texas are informed that in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired laborer.”
Though emancipated through Lincoln’s Proclamation two years prior, Texas slaves had remained in unwitting bondage. While Lincoln’s declaration was toothless in Texas, knowing this Proclamation was issued cannot be overstated.
For many slaves, the Proclamation signaled that change had come. The Emancipation Proclamation inspired hope. If Texas slaves had known of its existence, would they have chosen (like many throughout the south) to brave escape? Or to join the Union rather than toil in chains? Above all, it offered the promise that they could be free somewhere.
Historians believe that Texas slaveowners withheld information about the Emancipation Proclamation for many reasons, all of which are abhorrent.
After these conversations mentioned above with close friends and family about Juneteenth’s significance, I posted on Facebook to ask a wider group of my friends and colleagues if they knew of the holiday. The majority of respondents candidly shared that they had never heard of Juneteenth or had only recently become aware of the tradition.
As my friend CG Montgomery, Jr. said:
It has been, for me at least, an exclusively Texas thing and one not well known outside the black community. It was never mentioned in any history class. Not even Texas History as required for anyone in compulsory education.
But, one has to keep in mind that Texas, as recently as 2015, tended to gloss over slavery in its approved textbooks. When I was growing up, slavery was not taught or mentioned as even a tertiary reason for the Civil War. And as recently as 2015, it was described in many textbooks as “millions of workers from Africa to the southern United States to work on agricultural plantations,”…as if our ancestors just went down to their local travel agents and willingly signed up for the trip.
CG was right. When I matriculated through Texas schools, the Civil War was often taught as the “war of northern aggression” and purely about “state’s rights” with slavery as “a convenient excuse” for the North to aggress against the South. To steal its agricultural resources and crush opposition to “Northern rule” over the South. Resisting this tyranny was framed as a purely noble pursuit, and that only the wealthy plantation owners and deep South politicians truly cared about maintaining the “peculiar institution”. I didn’t personally debunk this enduring rose-colored narrative until I read the state secession letters.
Juneteenth was mentioned in our textbooks as a uniquely Texas historical event, but I can imagine most other states never bothering to tell the story.
I also learned the truth about Juneteenth outside of school. My family has been in Texas for eight generations. My family is multi-racial, and so were/are my social circles. As such, I grew up around (and always felt included in) Juneteenth celebrations. From cookouts to pool parties to parades. Even early on, I grasped that Texas’s shameful treatment of slaves was a particularly foul blemish on an already horrific period of oppression.
When I was a teenager, a pastor in Dallas preached a Juneteenth commemoration message that forever influenced the development of my civil libertarian views. His message is so important today.
He said that while Juneteenth celebrates the official end of human bondage in the United States, there is a truly universal message. Juneteenth should remind us all that even though those Texas slaves were free, they remained in chains because no one told them they were liberated. He asked that, in their memory, all people cherish our sacred right to self-direction, life, and liberty. Never standby and allow politicians or governments to “give” or “take” our indelible rights. As human beings, we are duty-bound to guard our basic freedoms against oppressors.
We all have a God-given right to live free in this world, with or without permission.
Forty-seven states and the District of Columbia recognize Juneteenth as a state or ceremonial holiday. The only three states that do not accept the holiday are North Dakota, South Dakota, and Hawaii. Texas was the first state to recognize the holiday in 1980. Knowing so few people outside of Texas are aware of this commemorative day’s meaning, and symbolism is a damning reminder of how clueless most of us are about the most controversial injustices in American history.
Yet this rising awareness offers all Americans an opportunity, especially as we enter the Next Great Civil Rights Movement. As so many Americans from diverse backgrounds unite against the continued injustice experienced uniquely by our black community, Juneteenth is an especially auspicious holiday. Perhaps by widely commemorating Juneteenth, we can transform Texas’s (and America’s) shameful legacy of racial injustice into a national, and global, celebration for the relentless pursuit of freedom.
As columnist Jamelle Bouie wrote:
Juneteenth may mark just one moment in the struggle for emancipation, but the holiday gives us an occasion to reflect on the profound contributions of enslaved black Americans to the cause of human freedom. It gives us another way to recognize the central place of slavery and its demise in our national story. And it gives us an opportunity to remember that American democracy has more authors than the shrewd lawyers and erudite farmer-philosophers of the Revolution, that our experiment in liberty owes as much to the men and women who toiled in bondage as it does to anyone else in this nation’s history.
Americans often lose sight of the purpose of many of our national holidays. We often wish mourning veterans a “Happy Memorial Day”, “Independence Day” is basically BBQ and Fireworks Day, and Labor Day is mostly National Vacation Day. But this cultural ignorance has not affected Juneteenth revelers, generation after generation. Celebrations continue to be particularly jubilant, an acknowledgment of the elation experienced by long-awaited liberation from tyranny and oppression. Perhaps because the fight against oppression continues, this message should resonate with all freedom-loving Americans paying any modicum of attention to the state of American liberty as a whole.
As Threads of Solidarity reminded us all:
Juneteenth is more than a celebration of emancipation for Black folks — it is a day to celebrate our journey, achievements, and our continued commitment to liberty and equality for all Americans.
I am wishing a blessed, joyful, and reflective Juneteenth to all those that celebrate this important American holiday. I hope those newly aware of Juneteenth take a moment to reflect on its meaning to the American black community, and us all.
To learn more, check out these beautiful articles:
- Why Juneteenth Matters by Jamelle Bouie
- Juneteenth: 18 Fascinating Facts About This American Holiday by Rod T. Faulkner
- Today is Juneteenth and Here’s What You Should Know About This Important Date in US History by Heather Mason
The opinions expressed are entirely my own. These opinions do not reflect any statements or positions of my colleagues, associates, organizations, companies, or affiliates.