Juneteenth: Remember – Reflect – Recommit

June 19, 2024

Growing up in Texas, I remember celebrating Juneteenth every year. My grandfather and grandmother made sure we did. It was a family tradition just like it was for most of the other Black families I knew in Houston. The holiday has special meaning in Texas among African Americans, because it is connected to our history. But then as I moved away as a young adult, I noticed it was celebrated less commonly outside of Texas, but there were still pockets of places where Black people celebrated it. That celebration increased over time. And in the wake of the country’s conflicted reckoning with persistent acts of violence against and killing of unarmed Black people, commemorating the holiday became more common throughout the country. In 2021, President Biden declared it an official national holiday.

But as Juneteenth has become more widespread in its being acknowledged as a holiday, it seems that the original significance of the day isn’t always understood or properly framed. Often its framed as a commemoration of the end of slavery in the US. Wikipedia even describes it as such, so I guess it must be true. While that way of describing it can provide a simple and meaningful way to remind people of slavery’s existence in this country, and provide an annual historical marker for slavery having come to an end, it doesn’t really give a correct or comprehensive understanding of the significance of the original event. It would be like saying July 4th marks the end of British colonilization of the country we now call the US. June 19, 1865, was not the end of slavery in this country.

Let’s start with what the date refers to in terms of an historical event. On June 19, 1865, Union Major General Gordon Granger ordered the enforcement of the Emancipation Proclamation in Texas. This was almost 18 months after the proclamation went into effect, and it had already been publicized and enforced in other parts of the South. Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation as a strategy to fight the South in the Civil War. Lincoln did not have the power to “end slavery” and only declared slaves freed in the slave-holding rebellious states of the Confederacy. It was intended to create instability in the South and help the Union in its efforts to quell the uprising. Until Granger and the Union Army arrived in Galveston, there had not been much enforcement of the proclamation, even though it certainly would have been known about in the region, before then.

Additionally, it wasn’t until the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment that slavery was actually abolished in the US. The amendment was approved by the House of Representatives in January of 1865. The American Civil War ended in May of 1865. The Thirteenth Amendment wasn’t ratified until December of the same year. So, Granger’s issuance of the order on June 19, 1865, in Texas, to enforce the Emancipation Proclamation, had almost no direct impact on slavery in the US, as a whole. It simply gave the Union military the ability to enforce a proclamation that had dubious legal standing at that point.

As a young person in Texas, I understood that celebrating the holiday was a commemoration of freedom, but also a recognition that the persistence of oppression is a reality for Black people and that laws in this country around oppression and justice can be precarious. Just as it took 18 months for enforcement of the proclamation to happen in Texas, the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment did not bring full freedom and justice to African Americans. Black people would still endure another one hundred years of Jim Crow racial segregation and the terror of lynching, before the quickening pace of the Civil Rights movement in the 1950’s and 1960’s would bring additional needed freedoms to African Americans. And the struggle for full freedom, justice, and equity continues to this day.

To be clear, I don’t reject the meaning-making practice of connecting Juneteenth to the end of slavery. For some, that is as far as they might be able to get for now, in their understanding of the holiday. But my hope is that we would all do the deeper work of understanding the full history and complexity of the holiday. Even more so, I hope that we would use it as an opportunity to think about the history of slavery and racialized oppression more comprehensively. If we push ourselves to learn more, we might better understand that there is still work to be done in this country.

May we see Juneteenth – Freedom Day as a time to remember the atrocities of slavery inflicted on Blacks in this country; reflect on the persistence of racialized oppression and how it has continued as an ever-present reality for millions; and recommit ourselves to the work of justice and liberation that we all must continue to do on behalf of the marginalized and oppressed.