Ask even your most detailed of history buffs what “Juneteenth” is and they will probably look at you like you have hardtack on your face. The name is funny-sounding enough, and the actual day is pretty vague to a lot of people — even though it’s very significant in American history, and especially African-American history.
After President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation and General Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox Court House at the end of the Civil War there was a lag time before the good news spread southward (especially since defeated confederates were in no hurry to give up the free labor they’d built their riches on). As huge of an impact as the War made on our nation, the fighting was only limited to certain regions, and because no one was Googling or live-streaming anything back then, spreading the word took a while (again, a lot of people were invested in slowing it down).
Thus, while the Emancipation Proclamation officially freed the slaves January 1, 1863, slaves in bondage in the South didn’t get the good news until June 19, 1865 (hence the portmanteau “Juneteenth”) when Union Army Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger and his soldiers landed in Galveston, TX to spread the word that slavery had officially ended in America. That means that for two whole years and some change, Southern slaves were still in bondage only in name — because legally, they were free.
This ugly legacy — humans as chattel and humans illegally remaining chattel so that some white dudes could keep profiting off them after it was finally outlawed — is yet another reminder of how horrible slavery was. It was a constant tale of immoral profiteering; a stacking doll set of monstrous lies; threats creating fear and fuelling mental and physical imprisonment. While Kanye West was 100% in the wrong when telling people “slavery was a choice,” Juneteenth does show how men and women were kept so misinformed that their power and freedom were debilitated, even after emancipation.
In this social climate, it’s important to remember the lesson of this little-known holiday. In the words of George Santayana, “Those who cannot remember history are doomed to repeat it.” Allowing ourselves to forget the mistakes we’ve made, the mistreatment of other humans, and the misinformation used to power that mistreatment has created an atmosphere where we are legitimately doing the exact same things as those long-dead slavers: withholding or manipulating information in order to benefit the rich. We’re seeing it right now, on our borders.
This year, cities all over the South will celebrate Juneteenth as “Freedom Day,” with Texas officially recognizing it as a state holiday in 1980. In fact, 45 of the 50 states actually recognize it as a state holiday or a day of observance. Even in Mexico, the Mascogos (descendants of the Black Seminoles) acknowledge the day. Celebrations often include parades, the singing of the Negro National Anthem and hymns about freedom that slaves traditionally sang while working in the fields.