Juneteenth on Saturday had a different feel about it. Last year, most celebrations of the freeing of slaves in Texas were canceled due to the pandemic, so many people were looking forward to this year’s events across the state.
Those events took on a little more importance, a little more gravitas, thanks to Congress and President Joe Biden. On Thursday, the president signed legislation declaring Juneteenth forevermore a federal holiday — in every state and not just in Texas.
It is good news, but perhaps it is a little odd. As Chicago Tribune columnist Dahleen Glanton explained on Friday, in reality Juneteenth is a Texas-specific holiday, officially celebrated in the state only since 1979. She, of course, is correct.
It was on June 19, 1865, that Union forces arrived by ship in Galveston, bringing the official news that the Civil War was over — and all the slaves in Texas were immediately free.
The announcement came four days before Confederate Gen. Stand Watie — who commanded a force of Cherokee, Creek, Seminole and Osage troops — became the last Confederate general to surrender, and almost five months before the CSS Shenandoah arrived in Liverpool, England, and became the last Confederate force to surrender.
Standing on the balcony of the Ashton Villa, Union Gen. Gordon Granger issued his 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.”
Although Granger’s order freed the 250,000 slaves in Texas, it did nothing for slaves in other states — including Maryland and Delaware, states not often thought of as slave states.
It wasn’t until December 1865, with the passage of the 13th Amendment, that slavery officially ended in the United States.
In recent years, as people moved from state to state, many Black Americans outside Texas celebrated Juneteenth. Good for them. They didn’t wait for Congress and the president to declare Juneteenth a national holiday.
Now that it is a national holiday, how will America observe the day? There will be parades, of course, and probably picnics in the park. Orators will orate on the meaning of the day. And, no doubt, there will be mattress sales, car sales and other special “events.”
That is all well and good, but will Americans pause to think on our nation’s “original sin?” Will we stop to consider the millions of African men, women and children ripped from their homes and families, herded into an overcrowded hold on a ship bound for the long trip to the “promised land” in a new world? Will we think of the long hours under the hot Texas sun, picking cotton until their hands were raw? Will we remember families torn asunder when one or more members were sold, most often never to be seen again?
Will we remember the hardships and indignities of freed slaves in the post-Civil War America, when hooded riders arrived in the night to carry off a family member to be hanged for the “crime” of being Black? Will we think of the Jim Crow days when schools and churches and stores and whole parts of towns were segregated? Will we remember the civil rights volunteers, Black and white, who died gaining the right to vote and other freedoms for Black Americans?
We don’t often think of these questions, in large part because some of us never learned the full impact that slavery had on our country.
Juneteenth is a time to celebrate — to celebrate how far we have come as a people — but also to realize how far we still have to go.
The challenges of equality for all loom large and it is up to all of us to ensure they are met. If we are to survive as a nation, it is imperative that we do so.