On June 19, 1865, nearly two months after Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered in Appomattox, Virginia, Gordon Granger, a Union general arrived in Galveston, TX to inform African American slaves that they were free, and that the Civil War was over. However, General Granger wasn’t just a little late with this news. In fact, the Emancipation Proclamation ended slavery in the Confederacy more than two years prior to Granger’s arrival in Texas. News traveled slowly and even when slave owners became aware, they intentionally waited until after the harvest to continue to benefit from slave labor although those slaves were now free.
Slaves who were now free on paper were still not physically free. Those who acted without the slave master’s permission did so at their peril. Slaves who left were greeted with terror and violence; some shot with rifles and some hung from a tree. Despite the terror and violence, the newly freed black men and women had a date to celebrate, the end of their enslavement.
In Texas, Juneteenth or Emancipation Day celebrations in the 1900s consisted of gathering lost family members who had been separated during the slave trade, measuring progress of freedom, and inculcating racial pride and uplift. Celebrations included reading the Emancipation Proclamation, religious sermons, and the preservation of food and other traditions. Years later, celebrations transformed as a wage against the Jim Crow South. In the 1920’s, the celebrations moved across state lines in cities such as Los Angeles, Oakland, and Seattle.
In 1979, Texas became the first state to recognize Juneteenth as an official holiday. Today, 45 states plus the District of Columbia have passed legislation recognizing Juneteenth as a holiday. The Fourth of July, also known as Independence Day or July 4th has been a federal holiday in the United States since 1941. From 1776 to the present day, July 4th has been celebrated as the birth of American independence. But you can’t celebrate freedom in America by just celebrating the Fourth of July. To the African American community, the Fourth of July is a revelation of the gross injustice and cruelty that African Americans endure daily dating back to June 19, 1865, hence the need for Juneteenth celebrations.
- On May 14, 2022, in Buffalo, NY, a white supremacist murdered 10 people and injured three more. The gunman targeted this grocery store specifically because of the large African American presence.
- On April 4, 2022, in Grand Rapids, MI, a white police offer shot and killed a black man in the back of the head as he lies face down on the ground.
- On May 20, 2022, in Louisville, KY, a white US Marshall shot and killed an unarmed black man after a foot pursuit.
- On March 19,2022, in Columbia, SC, a white police officer shot and killed a black man who suffered from mental health issues after his family pleaded with officers.
Killings by white supremacist of black victims and killings of unarmed black men by white police officers are a constant reminder of the nation’s history of slavery and racism. Juneteenth should be a reminder for all Americans not just the African American community of the work ahead. One hundred fifty-seven years later, the fabric of our country is still plagued with hate groups, police brutality, and systemic racism.
This Juneteenth, I implore you to learn and recognize the day by having an open dialogue with a member of your individual community about the perpetual effect of slavery the United States.