It’s official. Yesterday, President Biden signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act declaring June 19th a U.S. federal holiday that commemorates the end of slavery. Juneteenth has been celebrated for over a century as Jubilee Day, Freedom Day, Liberation Day, Emancipation Day, and many other names signaling the freeing of Black slaves from the suffocating oppression of slavery. There are so many brilliant historical analyses of what happened on June 19, 1865. If you would like to dive deeper into what happened that day in Galveston, Texas, and why a federal holiday honoring that day is a small but significant step in our country grappling with its history of slavery, read more here, here, and here.
I have been excited to see the celebrations commence and continue, but I have been very troubled about the narrative that is taking shape about this now federal holiday. The narrative goes something like this: On June 19th, 1865, Army Major General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, and told slaves of their emancipation because slaves in this region were not yet informed that they were free in spite of the Emancipation Proclamation being signed over two years prior. The slaves started celebrating because they finally found out they were free, and that jubilation at finding out they were free has been celebrated on June 19th every year since then. Something about this narrative has never made sense to me.
If the goal of that day was to share information with slaves, why did the Army send a Major General — the Commanding Officer for the District of Texas — accompanied by a contingency of over 2000 troops armed to deliver this information? The General Order issued by Major General Granger read: “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.” Hmmm. Surely, a senior Army commander and thousands of soldiers weren’t necessary to tell slaves that they were free and needed to stay quietly at home.
This narrative of “the slaves finally found out they were free” is reminiscent of the “Rosa Parks was just a tired Black woman who sat down where she wasn’t supposed to because her legs hurt” story. The reality is that Rosa Parks was a courageous and strong activist who engaged in a powerful act of resistance against an unfair system, and she was part of a larger politically and culturally savvy activism movement that ensured that her act of resistance was captured by the media and broadcast to the world.
The reality also is that there were hundreds of articles about the Emancipation Proclamation and the end of the Civil War in Texas newspapers prior to June 19, 1865. There is no evidence that all the enslaved people in Texas were completely in the dark about what was going on. There is evidence, however, that hundreds of enslaved people were murdered in Texas when they tried to organize rebellions or run away, during and even after the Civil War. Even if the slaves knew they were legally free, what were their choices in exercising that freedom when there were people ready to shoot them and their families dead if they behaved as if they were free?
Major General Granger did not ride into Galveston, Texas on June 19th, 1865 with more than 2000 soldiers to tell the enslaved they were free; he rode into Galveston with an imposing battalion of soldiers to let the slave owners know that they no longer had slaves, that they were no longer owners of people. The show of force was to ensure that the slave owners knew that they no longer had the power to ignore the law of the land.
Juneteenth is a celebration of the emancipation of the enslaved because Juneteenth is a celebration of accountability for enslavers. It’s a celebration of “freedmen” actually having the protection of their government to exercise their freedom.
It’s a day for us to reflect on what freedom really means if the people who don’t recognize the freedoms of others aren’t held accountable for their actions. It’s a day to reflect on what that means in 2021. So many of us waited with bated breath as the Derek Chauvin verdict was announced. There was no doubt for most of us that George Floyd did not deserve to die at Derek Chauvin’s hand, but there was plenty of doubt as to whether Chauvin would be held accountable. George Floyd’s knowledge of his rights could not have prevented his rights from being violated in the worst possible ways. Knowing that you are free and actually being free are two different things.
That difference between a promise made and a promise kept is what Juneteenth means to me. It’s that accountability of a senior Army commander and thousands of troops marching into Galveston, Texas in 1865 to remind the slave owners that they were going to follow the law, whether or not they wanted to.
The recognition of Juneteenth as a federal holiday is a success that we should all celebrate. My wish is that the celebration isn’t just about the hard-fought freedoms we know we are entitled to; it’s about the freedoms we are truly free to express and the accountability for those who stand in the way of that expression.
As this country’s first female and Black and Asian-American Vice President, Kamala Harris, said at the bill’s signing yesterday, “It is not only a day of pride. It’s also a day for us to reaffirm and rededicate ourselves to action.”
Yes, it is a day of pride. Yes, it is a day to recommit to the tremendous amount of work we still need to do. And, one place we can start doing that work is making sure that our narrative of the day accurately reflects the real history of the day.