Juneteenth, which is marked today, is “the oldest nationally celebrated commemoration of the ending of slavery in the United States,” according to the website Juneteenth.com. A portmanteau of “June” and “19th,” it marks the day in 1865 when Union Army Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger delivered the news in Galveston, Texas, that the Civil War had ended and the enslaved were free, the website states, pointing out that this was two and a half years after President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863.
Americans are getting a crash course about the holiday known as Juneteenth, and it’s long overdue.
While African Americans have been celebrating the holiday for years, and some have called for it to be a national holiday, an understanding of Juneteenth has failed to take hold.
Until now, we hope.
We owe this new understanding to the Black Lives Matter movement and its success in making it clear that the fierce urgency of now — as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. put it — means now.
Not next year.
Not sometime in the distant future.
Now is the time to rid ourselves of the symbols of the Confederacy.
Now is the time — as the owner of the General Sutter Inn in Lititz has wisely concluded — to take down statues like that of John A. Sutter, who enslaved and abused Native Americans. “History cannot be changed but we can ALL do better to create a more equal and just future,” owner David Stoudt wrote on Facebook — a goal advanced by refusing to pay tribute any longer to those who betrayed American ideals.
Now is the time to address systemic racism in government, policing, education, housing, finance — every segment of American life.
Now is the time to appreciate the meaning of Juneteenth.
As the website Juneteenth.com tells us, there were too few Union troops to enforce President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation in Texas, the westernmost state of the Confederacy.
Slave owners in Texas weren’t keen to lose their free labor, so they simply — and cruelly — ignored the Emancipation Proclamation. And they continued to do so even after Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered April 9, 1865.
Then Granger arrived with his Union troops in Galveston and delivered General Order No. 3, which stated that “in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves.”
As historian and literary critic Henry Louis Gates Jr. wrote for The Root website, “by the time Granger assumed command of the Department of Texas, the Confederate capital in Richmond had fallen; the ‘Executive’ to whom he referred, President Lincoln, was dead; and the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery was well on its way to ratification.”
Even after Texas fell, Gates observed, “it wasn’t exactly instant magic for most of the Lone Star State’s 250,000 slaves.”
Even then, plantation masters waited to announce the news — until after the harvest, in many cases.
Those who acted on the news of emancipation “did so at their peril,” Gates wrote, recounting that former slaves were hanged for exercising their right to freedom.
This means that, as historian Elizabeth Hayes Turner noted in an essay cited by Gates, Juneteenth wasn’t the day the enslaved were actually freed. It was the day they were told they were free.
Nevertheless, Juneteenth endured as a holiday among African Americans, who cherished it, Gates wrote, “as an occasion for gathering lost family members, measuring progress against freedom and inculcating rising generations with the values of self-improvement and racial uplift.”
Texas made Juneteenth a state holiday in 1980.
This year, with issues of racial injustice staring us plainly in the face, there is a wider embrace of Juneteenth.
As CBS News has reported, corporations including Twitter, Nike, Lyft, Citigroup and the NFL announced that they would observe Juneteenth.
Gov. Tom Wolf announced Thursday that it would be a holiday for state employees under his jurisdiction. State employees in New York and Virginia also will have the day off, but the governors of those states want Juneteenth to be made an official state holiday. (Given Virginia’s history as the home of the Confederate capital, that would be significant.)
“It is a day we should all reflect upon. It is a day that is especially relevant in this moment in history,” New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said.
He is right, of course.
This moment has thrown into sharp relief the ways in which this nation has failed in its promise of liberty and justice for all. The horrific killing of George Floyd under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer, as other officers looked on, has brought us to this moment of reckoning. The police shooting of Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta — and those of so many others — have added to its urgency.
Lancaster City Council President Ismail Smith-Wade-El may unsettle, and even anger, readers with his assertion in an op-ed today that Juneteenth “is America’s liberation day, in a deeper sense than the Fourth of July ever will be.”
But as much as we love Independence Day, we must acknowledge that July 4, 1776, didn’t grant freedom to everyone in this magnificent nation.
In a July 5, 1852, speech, abolitionist Frederick Douglass spoke of the “immeasurable distance” between white Americans and enslaved Americans on Independence Day.
“The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common,” Douglass said. “The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. ... What, to the American slave, is your Fourth of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim.”
The “immeasurable distance” has been narrowed significantly, but it hasn’t been eliminated. People of color in the U.S. still suffer systemic injustice and cruelty.
Celebrating Juneteenth as a national holiday — in addition to Independence Day — would recognize this reality. And it would declare that freedom for all, though delayed, must come.