As the blazing fires burn down to warming embers and the cacophony of voices shouting loud for Black lives lower, the work that remains to be done still looms heavy. The fight against racial injustice has never felt more purposeful and with today being Juneteenth, it is immediately important to examine the history of the day while continuing the quest for freedom.
Known as Freedom Day, Liberation Day, and also Emancipation Day, June 19 marks when Union Army forces from the north arrived in Galveston, Texas to finally deliver federal orders that slavery was officially ended. While President Abraham Lincoln reluctantly approved the Emancipation Proclamation, which went into effect on January 1, 1863, slaves in Texas remained in the dark for two years in the Lone Star State.
Slavery was a driver of the nation’s economy, most especially in the Confederate states thus the resistance from maneuvering politicians and the meandering path taken to push the proclamation into law. Because slavery was lucrative in the northern regions as well, there wasn’t a rush to do away with slavery, despite mounting pressure from abolitionists like Frederick Douglass and others.
President Lincoln, perhaps beset with the moral weight of the decision, signed the law that would become the Emancipation Proclamation in 1862, with the American Civil War still raging in its early stages. The retelling of the Civil War is that it was primarily sparked over the disagreement over slavery. The northern leaders believed with the urging of abolitionists that slavery should be outlawed while the confederate states held fast to the racist practice.
The four-year war saw the southern states and their less-equipped military lose ground slowly and surely, and with an official victory for the Union still off in the distance, slavery was ended by federal law. However, Texas, a confederate state, resisted the shift, not unlike other states that were once under the same banner.
Union troops arrived in Galveston, a coastal city that was home to a large group of enslaved people, Union Army Gen. Gordon Granger delivered the message signaling their freedom but also a veiled warning that they were still seen as lesser.
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.
From that point on, Juneteenth became a festive annual event for Black people in Texas and across the former confederate states, beginning first in rural backroad communities before becoming the norm in larger cities across the nation. Nearly all 50 states recognize Juneteenth unofficially, and recent political pushes to make it a federal holiday have sprung forth, no doubt inspired by the nationwide unrest and response to racism, police brutality, and economic inequality.
Legendary scribes of our times, such as the late Maya Angelou and the late Ralph Ellison, have placed the holiday in the center of their writings. And this year, a record number of businesses are granting their employees a day off as a sign of solidarity with the struggles of Black Americans.
By all measures, the recognition from top brands and companies that Black lives actually do matter is bittersweet as it had to come on the heels of the tragic murders of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Sandra Bland and Trayon Martin before them. Being Black in America should be a point of pride and jubilant celebration period, and there will be little doubt that that joy will be widespread despite the grim circumstances that call for togetherness.
But on the other side of the celebrations and swelling Black pride will be the work we must continue to do in honor of those lost so that our children and their children will grow up in a world where being Black isn’t a badge of judgment but instead, an announcement to all who dare attempt to silence us will always be met with resistance as we know full well the full cost of freedom.
Our Black lives depend on that.
Learn more about Juneteenth here.