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We the People: The first Juneteenth was inspired by the Emancipation Proclamation. But 156 years later, inequality persists

UPDATED: Sat., June 19, 2021

A Black Civil War unit of the First South Carolina Volunteers assembled to hear a reading of President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863.  (Associated Press)
A Black Civil War unit of the First South Carolina Volunteers assembled to hear a reading of President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863. (Associated Press)
By Elwood Watson For The Spokesman-Review

Each week, The Spokesman-Review examines one question from the Naturalization Test immigrants must pass to become United States citizens.

Today’s question: What did the Emancipation Proclamation do?

Black American liberation and religion are inextricably intertwined. During the centuries that they were being struck down by the unbearable, oppressive spirit of slavery, people of African descent found solace in the various stories of the Bible, and Christianity served as a powerful psychological sanctuary.

We are a community of people that has endured unfathomable levels of trials, abuse and tribulations. The experience of Black America has been one that includes rivers of blood, oceans of sweat and a countless number of tears. It is a community that has suffered indescribable mistreatment. As a Black American, I am descended from a people for whom the history of slavery, lynching, segregation, black codes, poll taxes, oppressive sharecropping systems and Jim Crow laws are historical facts deeply etched in the fabric of history.

As a scholar who is a historian by training, I have done considerable research relating to Black American history and studied the harrowing accounts of the middle passage and other inhumane incidents, as they related to the rapacious institution of slavery. My ancestors were brought to America as slaves. I can only begin to imagine the abominable and inhumane treatment they endured.

Thus, Juneteenth is a celebration acknowledging the ending of slavery in the United States. On June 19, 1865, Major General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, and announced that all slaves were free. Later that year, on Dec. 6, the 13th Amendment was ratified by Congress, legally and officially ending slavery in the United States.

One can only envision the overpoweringly jubilant emotion transpiring from the community of former slaves. There have been several accounts of singing, dancing and other forms of unalloyed elation from the psychologically, as well as legally, freed former slave population.

President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863, and many slaves had been freed for more than two years, even though in the cradle of the slave-holding confederacy such a truth refused to be recognized. Contrary to the newly freed slaves, many slave owners and other proponents of the slave system were likely shedding more than a few tears.

By 1865, Texas was the last slave-holding territory in the nation. Thus, Juneteenth did not designate the ratification of the Emancipation Proclamation, but instead determined the moment of freedom for all slaves.

The purpose of Juneteenth is to acknowledge the atrocities of the past, and to educate current and future generations of people from African descent about the struggles of Black Americans to ensure it will never be forgotten that we as Black Americans were once considered human property, and to celebrate our liberation from bondage. Juneteenth also serves as a holiday to raise the level of consciousness and to educate Americans of all racial and ethnic groups about slavery in the United States.

As Black Americans, we have long considered ourselves to be on the front line for freedom from racial tyranny. We have been the victims of centuries of discrimination, racial hatred, state-sanctioned violence, a fiercely hostile criminal justice system and numerous other injustices. It is due to this profusion of untoward factors that we understand the importance of celebrating a holiday that pays homage to one of the most pivotal moments in the history of Black America, as well as American history in general. Its roots in the reflection of the past offer valuable learning experience and the opportunity for racial healing.

Today, in 2021, Black America has seen members of its community become congressmen, governors, senators, Oscar winners, CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, as well as accept such honorable titles as Miss America, Secretary of State, Vice President and President of the United States. Despite these triumphs, we have also witnessed increasing poverty rates, heightened white supremacist activity, profoundly obscene incarceration rates as a backlash against the Obama years, hyper racial segregation in our public-school system and in many workplaces, and other social maladies that threaten to erase the gains made over the past half century.

As we celebrate Juneteenth this year, we must keep in mind that the ideas and promises of freedom alone are not enough to either sustain or propel us. We must celebrate the holiday in the years to come with the unrelenting intent to rectify the pervasive inequality that remains with us long after that liberating day in June 1865.

Historian, public speaker and cultural critic Elwood Watson, Ph.D., is a professor of History, Black Studies and Gender and Sexuality Studies at East Tennessee State University and the author of the recent book “Keepin’ It Real: Essays on Race in Contemporary America” (University of Chicago Press) that is available in paperback and Kindle via Amazon and other major book retailers.

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