Today we mark the celebration of Juneteenth, a day specifically to commemorate the abolition (sort of) of slavery in the United States. Though the United States’ Civil War was supposedly over when General Lee surrendered to General Grant—April 9, 1865—, news traveled slowly and fighting continued in many areas, particularly in those arenas further flung from Appomattox, Virginia. The Army of the Trans-Mississippi became the last major Confederate command to formally surrender on June 2, 1865 in Galveston, Texas. On June 18th, Union General Granger arrived in Galveston and the following day—June 19th, or Juneteenth—Granger read aloud, from Ashton Villa’s balcony, General Order No. 3:
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 personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.
The proclamation referenced in that general order was, of course, the Emancipation Proclamation which had been issued on September 22, 1862 and went into effect on January 1, 1863. It took two and a half years for word of the Proclamation to make its way to Texas. Even General Granger’s announcement to Galveston proved to not be the official marker of emancipation: the influence of those who claimed ownership of Black folks suppressed the news of emancipation, often waiting until the fall so they could squeeze out one last harvest out of the men, women, and children to whose bodies and labor they felt entitled. And, even in cases where the good news of “liberation” had been heard, freedom was every bit as abstract as it had been before emancipation. As Jamelle Bouie writes: ‘There, as elsewhere in the South, attempts to act on this freedom were met with violence from former slave owners and other angry whites. … “reports showed that blacks continued in a form of slavery, intimidated by former Confederate soldiers still in uniform and bearing arms.”’
In light of the Black Codes (and, later, Pig Laws and Jim Crow laws) that were passed into law across the South, that Juneteenth became an annual celebration at all is remarkable: denied access to public spaces thanks to legal segregation, free Black folks first gathered along rivers and lakes and, then, pooled money to purchase their own land on which to gather. In fact, some of that land—ten acres in the Houston area—became the very first public park in the state of Texas. As the years went on and Jim Crow took a firmer and firmer grasp of the United States (not to mention, the Great Depression a few decades later), Juneteenth celebrations were increasingly hard to pull off; nevertheless, the Great Migration allowed Juneteenth celebrations to spread outside of Texas and across the nation.
Juneteenth became more widespread during the Civil Rights era, particularly as participants in the 1968 Poor People’s March celebrated Juneteenth in Washington, D.C. and, then, took the idea back home with them. The traditions continued to grow through the later decades of the twentieth century, with the celebration’s home state of Texas establishing Juneteenth as a state holiday in 1979. Since 1979, forty-four other states have joined Texas in initiating some kind of official observance of Juneteenth—only the Dakotas, Hawaii, Montana, and New Hampshire have no official recognition on the books. Meanwhile, work continues on establishing Juneteenth as a national day of observance.
One hundred and fifty-four years after the Emancipation Proclamation was enacted and one hundred and fifty-two years after General Granger read General Order No. 3 in Galveston, we still have a long way to go in order to achieve true equity. Citizenship, sadly, is still not a guarantee of real freedom. For those reasons, Juneteenth is still, in many ways, an aspirational holiday—one that celebrates and reflects on “the fundamental promise of America being more completely realized.” This is the moment in which I would like to specifically address my fellow white folks: I hope you will join me in observing Juneteenth as a day of reflection, in acknowledging that Juneteenth is an aspirational holiday because we have a very long history of intentionally denying Black folks those rights that we revere as “inalienable.” It is incumbent on us to take the time to learn about our history—especially the ugliest bits of our history. It is our duty to face the actions of our parents, grandparents, and ancestors and take in (without getting defensive) the knowledge that those actions compounded one another over the years and decades and centuries. It is paramount that we listen to Black Americans when they tell us that they are still less free than white folks because of all of that compounded harm. We have to be willing to work toward fulfilling “the fundamental promise of America.” We’re not there yet, but we can definitely make strides in that direction.