I hate to admit this but, I had never heard of Juneteenth until I moved to Houston in the 1980s. When I learned what it was, I wondered why celebrate two additional years of enslavement? I came to learn that it’s not about the time, it’s about the overcoming. The hard won, first step to regaining the humanity that was stolen, and rebuilding lives that were systemically sabotaged. There is no expiration date on celebration. And there shouldn’t be…
In 1863, Pres. Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, declaring enslaved people living in the Confederate states to be free. But it was two years before the news reached enslaved African Americans in Texas. It was not until Union soldiers arrived in Galveston on June 19, 1865, that Texans learned that slavery had been abolished.
Before that, from the 1500’s to 1863 and 1865, human beings were kidnapped, separated from family and friends, shipped like cargo, and sold, naked, on auction blocks into servitude. They were stripped of all human rights and dignity; denied educations, the right to vote, the right to own property, travel or do much of anything, but have a church.
It’s difficult for me to understand the nature of cruelty and hatred that burns so deeply into one human over another because of skin color, nationality, religion, lifestyle…or anything. My instincts tell me that it is not the hated who is sick and vile, it is most definitely the hater.
People who look like me lived enslaved for hundreds of years in this country. There is no accurate count, but some estimates are upwards of ten million. Many chose death over slavery. The incidents of murders, rapes, and brutality are also impossible to count. If this is difficult to read about, just imagine how it was for those who lived it.
Juneteenth is a celebration of the end of slavery for sure, but it is also a reminder of the capacity humans have for unimaginable cruelty. . . .and have had throughout history, all over the world. America’s shame is shared.
History Lingers in the Air Like a Virus
The declaration of freedom was in no way the end to the story. Jim Crow and other laws of oppression targeted people of African descent. Lynching, legal discrimination, and you know the rest; efforts to undermine the development of wealth and success, or even ordinary life. The origin of these lingering evils is slavery and the resentment of its demise.
But Don’t Forget the Overcoming
It was illegal for an enslaved person to receive an education, but in 1870, Richard Theodore Greener professor, lawyer, and diplomat, became the first Black graduate of Harvard College, receiving his AB.
The Morrill Act of 1890 required states—especially former confederate states—to provide land-grants for institutions for Black students if admission was not allowed elsewhere. The Act prohibited the distribution of money to states that made distinctions of race in admissions unless at least one land-grant college for African Americans, was established. Initially, 19 public Black colleges were created, and today there are 107 HBCUs in operation, among them agricultural, medical colleges, and law schools.
And despite laws denying patents to enslaved people, Black inventors and scientists launched thousands of innovative products and early technologies.
Today, one in 50 African American families in America are millionaires.
And most remarkable of all, while the first enslaved Africans were brought to this land on August 20, 1619, in January of 2009, Barack Obama, the son of a Kenyan economist and an anthropologist mother of English, Scottish and Irish descent, took the oath office as the 44th President of the United States.
The late State Representative Al Edwards worked for many years to have Juneteenth declared a holiday and in 1979, the Texas Legislature passed a bill declaring Juneteenth a state holiday. It became a national holiday in 2021.
In preparation for this article, I read some accounts of slavery from the mouths of those who lived it but truthfully, the stories were too painful to put on the page. For them and for all of us, let’s celebrate Juneteenth by holding a moment of silence for those who lived through the unspeakable, by celebrating those who have overcome, and by encouraging those who still need to be lifted in a society where there remain active efforts to knock them down.
Happy Juneteenth. Happy Humanity.