This weekend, Americans will celebrate an unofficial holiday that many people had not heard of a year ago.
In this era of purposeful racial awareness, Juneteenth is the new “it” holiday for the socially woke.
While many African Americans have celebrated it for decades, the effort to make June 19 a federal holiday commemorating the end of slavery has gained steam. In the aftermath of the George Floyd murder and other criminal injustices, Illinois’ Legislature has passed a measure making Juneteenth a holiday, joining several other states.
There’s certainly nothing wrong with embracing Black history, making amends for atrocities past and present, and honoring the accomplishments of African Americans. The problem is that it’s the wrong date. The last of the slaves were not freed on Juneteenth.
Juneteenth represents June 19, 1865 – the date Union soldiers arrived in Texas to announce that the Civil War was over, and slavery had been abolished. That was 2 1/2 years after President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation declared slaves held in Confederate states free and two months after his assassination.
Juneteenth does not represent the end of slavery in America, as it is often erroneously reported. It specifically notes the end of slavery in Texas. Slavery continued to thrive in several border states that were not affected by the Emancipation Proclamation. Delaware was the last to free its nearly 2,000 slaves on Dec. 6, 1865, six months after Texas.
Dec. 6 would be the most accurate date to celebrate the end of slavery. That’s when the 13th Amendment was ratified in 1865, officially abolishing slavery throughout the United States. Every state was then required by federal law to free its slaves.
There is no historical reason to make June 19 a federal holiday or even a state holiday anywhere other than in Texas. It does, however, allow for a good summer celebration. And it’s better than no commemoration at all.
Even before Juneteenth became a Texas holiday in 1979, Black Texans were celebrating it as if it were the Fourth of July. There are festivals, parades, barbecues with strawberry drinks and red velvet cake, symbolizing the resilience of the descendants of slaves.
Several other states also celebrate their own emancipation dates. In Kentucky and parts of Tennessee, for example, Aug. 8 is observed as the day slaves there were told of their freedom.
There’s nothing wrong with commemorating Juneteenth, but America needs to understand exactly what it’s celebrating. African American history has long been distorted. To fully understand race, we must first acknowledge the truth about the legacy of slavery.
Juneteenth points to the treachery of the dying Confederacy and its determination to sustain the institution of slavery by any means necessary. Rather than abide by the Emancipation Proclamation, slaveholders continued to hold some 250,000 Black people throughout Texas in captivity long after they should have been freed.
We can’t let Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, Missouri and West Virginia off the hook for their defiance either. Slavery was a lucrative business in states that bordered the Confederacy, though they never seceded from the Union. It took an act of Congress to force them to give it up.
Every American should embrace the idea of commemorating emancipation, which fundamentally changed the direction of America. The 13th Amendment ended one of the worst atrocities in this country’s history. It deserves a national celebration.
Truth is even more significant now that a conservative movement is afoot to diminish the impact of slavery. This revisionist history suggests that race should be treated as a mere footnote. It refuses to acknowledge that race is part of the historical fabric of this country, embedded in its foundation.
Those who oppose critical race theory deny the fact that race permeates every policy and institution in America. It ignores the reality that race always will be a key operative in how the country goes about its business, whether Americans choose to talk about it or not.
The argument against critical race theory defies what many Americans, regardless of their race or ethnicity, know is true – that systemic racism is a byproduct of slavery that has outlived emancipation.
Much of America’s Black history has been covered up to make slavery seem less abominable. Disinformation campaigns have long been used to distort Black history and diminish the contributions of African Americans.
Donald Trump told the Wall Street Journal last year that he was responsible for bringing Juneteenth to the attention of mainstream America. He said, “nobody had ever heard of” Juneteenth until he had to push his political rally back a day because it was scheduled on the holiday.
That wasn’t all true, but there was some truth in it. Trump admitted that he had never heard of Juneteenth. Most white people hadn’t at that time. Many African Americans had to Google it too.
How could most Americans have known? This part of history is not taught in public schools. There is barely a mention in history books because America has never been interested in telling the true story of slavery. This country has, however, been steadfast in honoring Confederate heroes.
The problem with using Juneteenth as a catchall African American holiday is that it doesn’t allow the true story to be told of how far America went to preserve the institution of slavery. But it will have to do until America chooses to come terms with its past.
Meanwhile, we will continue to joyfully celebrate Juneteenth. On Saturday, let’s grab a bottle of red soda and toast to a more informed, racially conscious America.
Then, let’s get real about the contemptible role of race in this country.
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