Juneteenth represents the day that Union Army General Gordon Granger was deployed to Galveston, Texas, to inform a reluctant community that President Abraham Lincoln had freed the slaves after 246 horrific years. (Most recognize 1619 as the year the first 20 Africans were brought to this country to be enslaved). The General announced that slavery had been abolished by the Emancipation Proclamation and that abolition would be enforced.
This news came to those enslaved a full two and a half years AFTER President Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation declaring all enslaved people free as of January 1, 1863. Texas was the most remote of the slave states and it gave the slave owners the “cover” they needed to maintain the insidious practice of slavery.
As Martin Luther King Jr. so ably put it, “None of us are free unless all of us are free.” Therefore, this date – June 19, signals the “real end” of slavery for African American people in America and a cause for deep reflection and celebration.
Historical information dates the first Juneteenth celebration in Texas in 1866. Since then, celebrations have become widespread across the nation. In fact, Juneteenth is recognized as a state holiday or special day of observance in nearly all of the 50 United States and the District of Columbia.
Celebrations have ranged from major events, street fairs, parties and parades to small gatherings designed to reflect on what the history of slavery means to our lives today. This year, the COVID-19 pandemic has prevented most outdoor celebrations. Instead, you have a range of opportunities to celebrate in small family and friend groups and through Zoom and other online platforms locally and nationally.
I urge you to set aside time today to think about various aspects of Juneteenth:
- The information about the end of slavery was withheld from enslaved people in Texas for more than two years. Information is power. Truth is power. Today, we need to continue to study and inform ourselves, educate ourselves, so we can make decisions that empower our lives and promote the chances of success for ourselves, our families and communities.
- Our ancestors were strong, and they fought to escape and end slavery. During the Reconstruction era in the aftermath of slavery, our ancestors organized and were elected to public offices and built wealth, schools, businesses, churches, and strong communities. The backlash to that progress came through a brutal enforcement of “white supremacy” with the institution of Jim Crow laws and unspeakable violence against Black people that wiped out our progress physically and financially. Examples are the Rosewood Massacre in Florida, the destruction of Black Wallstreet in Oklahoma, and lynching on a massive scale that tore families and communities asunder. Jim Crow laws and vigilantism did great mental, emotional, and economic harm. But it did not tamp down the will to resist and rebuild our towns and lives or our will to survive and thrive.
- The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s, ’60s and into the early ’70s continued our hard-fought battle for equal justice under the law. Organized, peaceful protests led by civil rights leaders and supported by massive numbers of Black people and allies were met by violence, hatred, and all too often brutal death. These efforts began to push open doors of opportunity and saw the hard-fought battle won for the institution of legislation to secure voting rights, and access to housing, education, jobs, and economic advancement. But a renewed backlash, born of a loyalty to the Confederacy and systemic racism that never died, diminished our gains once again. The foes of equality have done us great harm. But the will to resist is stronger than ever. The visibility of our allies is stronger than ever, not just here in America but across the world.
Our nation is hurting over the recent murders of Black men and women by the hands of police, and by the exposure of the open wound of injustice and inequality. On this Juneteenth, we can celebrate the resilience of a people who have never given up hope and have always actively pushed this country to live up to its promise of equal opportunity for all. We can recommit individually and collectively to do all we can to sustainably defeat the idea and the vestiges of the Confederacy and the racism, hatred, and inhumanity it represents.
On Juneteenth, in addition to celebrating the emancipation of the enslaved in this country, if you have not already registered to VOTE or updated your voter information, do so.
If you have not already completed and submitted your CENSUS form, do so.
If you have not thought of ways YOU can be a part of the solution, do so.
Happy Juneteenth. Let us always remember the sacrifices of the past, the promise of the future, and our responsibility to do our part to make the world a better place. The Urban League of Greater Atlanta and the Urban League Movement were born out of, and in the midst of, our struggles. It exists today to advance our lives now and into the future. We are a person-to-person organization invested in the economic success of African Americans, coaching and supporting our clients to a better life.
We Evaluate where you are; We Equip you with what you need; and We Elevate you to where you want to go. We invite you to visit our website at www.ulgatl.org to learn more about our work and ways we support our communities and families to thrive.
Nancy Flake Johnson