So you don’t know what Juneteenth is, and you’re not sure it’s okay to ask. You aren’t alone, but since the last thing our Black communities need right now is to enlighten the majority about a significant historic event that we SHOULD have learned by the eighth grade, let’s educate ourselves together.
If you’re like most people, you probably think the Emancipation Proclamation “freed the slaves” in the United States. It didn’t. It legally declared freedom for 3.5 million slaves owned within Confederate territory, which is not the same thing.
As we were in the midst of a brutal civil war, the Confederacy was not recognizing the authority of the US at the time. Some slaves who managed to escape to Union-held territory, or who were liberated by advancing Union troops, were freed; however, many of that 3.5 million remained enslaved.
On June 19th, 1865, 2 months and 10 days after Lee’s surrender (and more than two YEARS after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation), a Union General read a statement in Galveston, Texas that informed the known slaves in the former Confederacy that they were no longer slaves. This is the date that we celebrate as Juneteenth.
(It’s worth noting that there were slaves owned within Union territory, and that they were neither recognized in the Emancipation Proclamation nor liberated on Juneteenth. They would not find a path out of slavery until the 13th Amendment was ratified.)
It’s simultaneously shocking and unsurprising that so many people don’t recognize this holiday. On the one hand, where our modern sensibilities are generally unanimous in denouncing slavery (when we recognize it), there’s no denying that a huge portion of us were – or are – ignorant of this important detail about the “end” of slavery in the US.
On the other hand, what most of us don’t know could fill a book. Hundreds of them, actually. (For a start, take a look at our resources post.)
But getting back to Juneteenth, take a moment to consider what this means. It took 2 years, 5 months, and 18 days for the Emancipation Proclamation to be realized by that statement in Galveston. In that time, how many families were torn apart, sold separately? How many slaves were beaten? How many were raped? How many were killed?
This Friday marks 155 years since that first Juneteenth, and it’s obvious that Black people in America are still overwhelmingly victimized by our nation’s economic, social, and legal policies. From lynchings at the hands of police and vigilantes to education funding that perpetuates economic inequality to documented bias in loaning, hiring, and sentencing practices, our country has built a wall between opportunity and our Black communities.
The 2020 protests in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, unfortunately no longer the latest in a shameful string of unarmed Black people killed by law enforcement, have made some progress. Communities are defunding or voting on whether to defund police, and landmarks featuring Confederate “heroes” and known racists are being removed.
There is much work still to be done, much of which is the work of the unconscious oppressors. That includes those of us who benefit from white privilege. (If you’re white, you do.) It includes many of us who believe we are woke. (We aren’t.) It includes the relatives we dismiss because “it’s just their generation.” (It’s really, and very sadly, not.)
We urge you to join us this Juneteenth in our pledge to continue learning. About Juneteenth, slavery, the 13th-15th Amendments, how our country legalized institutionalized racism, how segregation remains in practice if not law, and why we still have so much trouble talking about racism. That would be a start. Learn, grow, and sign up to take action.
157 years, 5 months, and 18 days.
We’ve GOT to do better.