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We the People: Juneteenth recognizes the trauma of slavery – but there’s a reason it’s ‘not just a Black holiday’

General Order No. 3, was issued by Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger on June 19, 1865. The announcement made in Galveston, Texas, is the basis for the Juneteenth holiday, which celebrates the end of slavery in the United States.  (National Archives)
General Order No. 3, was issued by Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger on June 19, 1865. The announcement made in Galveston, Texas, is the basis for the Juneteenth holiday, which celebrates the end of slavery in the United States. (National Archives)

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

Today’s question: What U.S. war ended slavery?

Two months after the end of the American Civil War, Union Major General Gordon Granger issued an order in Galveston, Texas, announcing a decision made more than two years earlier.

“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,” Granger’s General Order No. 3, delivered June 19, 1865, said.

The delay in news of President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation reaching Galveston was partly because “in the cradle of the slave-holding confederacy such a truth refused to be recognized,” wrote Elwood Watson, professor of History, Black Studies and Gender and Sexuality Studies at East Tennessee State University, in a “We the People” essay last year.

Granger’s order was celebrated by formerly enslaved people a year later, and resulted in the Juneteenth holiday, marking the end of slavery in the United States.

The day became a federal holiday in 2021. It stresses the importance of celebrating the multiple histories of the American people.

Before the Civil War, abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth and Mary Ann Shadd sparked concerns about the idea and integrity of American freedom.

Americans recognize July 4, 1776, as American Independence Day, gaining freedom after claiming victory in 1783 at the end of the American Revolutionary War against the British. However, Americans still kept Africans as slaves.

Douglass gathered with other New York officials to highlight the 76th anniversary of America claiming its independence and addressed the crowd with his speech “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” at the Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society meeting in 1852.

He questioned the integrity of the American Constitution and the value of American freedom, since enslaved Black people still were considered property. Douglass centered his speech on the promises of freedom made in the Declaration of Independence, of all men being “created equal.”

“I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us,” Douglass delivered in the speech. “The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me… This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.”

Angela Schwendiman, the director of Africana Studies at Eastern Washington University, finds Douglass’ strategy to invoke American legislation an effective tactic to recast American experiences and ideologies of freedom. This tactic was adopted by other freedom fighters, such as Martin Luther King Jr., who cited the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments of the Constitution to secure rights for Black people during the Civil Rights Movement.

“Douglass was incensed to say, ‘this is not my holiday, this is your holiday,’ ” Schwendiman said. “You gained your independence from the colonial powers, but let’s look at the contradiction here: We still have three to four million people who are enslaved in the United States. He brings out the point that we really don’t have a democracy until we acknowledge the fact that we have millions of Black people in a state of bondage while living in a free country.”

Since the Emancipation Proclamation marks the first tastes of citizenship for Black people, Schwendiman said a separate holiday emphasizes the need to acknowledge diverse racial experiences in America. Juneteenth as a federal holiday unifies the country by acknowledging Black Americans’ history. Schwendiman calls Juneteenth a “moment to recognize the nation’s historical trauma.”

“From racism, we have a collective trauma, which then makes a collective identity of all the things that were being restricted by racial segregation practiced here in America,” Schwendiman said. “Out of that, you’re having different experiences, which form different collective memories, which then forms collective consciousness amongst this group of people where their lives and experiences are different.”

“Not only does this allow us to come together to unify us as a country, it validates the experiences of people by memorializing what those people went through,” Schwendiman said. “This is not just a Black holiday, it’s an American holiday, because certain Americans had to achieve their liberation and freedom in a different way. This validates their American experience.”

Galveston’s residents have become the modern curators of the holiday’s traditions and practices. Juneteenth celebrations include re-enacting Gen. Gordon’s order; consuming products such as red velvet cake and strawberry soda because of their red color, which came to represent the holiday over the years; and parades and beauty pageants for the title of Miss Juneteenth.

Dwonna Goldstone, Africana Director at Texas State University, finds Juneteenth a moment to understand the national narrative of slavery.

“It’s important for Texas and Texans to be centered in the story of Juneteenth, but I also think slavery was a national event,” Goldstone said. “The way that Black people and Black bodies are being treated is not just the Texas thing, it’s a national thing.”

However, she hopes that Juneteenth is not the only day that non-Black Americans acknowledge the impact of slavery and invest in Black Americans’ continued quest for equality.

“We all are excited about Juneteenth, but I wonder what happens after,” Goldstone said. “It’s somewhat a performative action of white people coming together and celebrate with Black people who are coming together and celebrate, but what are we doing the other 364 days?”

Amber D. Dodd's work as the Carl Maxey Racial and Social Inequity reporter for Eastern Washington and North Idaho primarily appears in both The Spokesman-Review and The Black Lens newspapers, and is funded in part by the Michael Conley Charitable Fund, the Smith-Barbieri Progressive Fund, the Innovia Foundation and other local donors from across our community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper's managing editor.

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