History books taught us that the Emancipation Proclamation abolished slavery when Abraham Lincoln signed it in 1862. But the Emancipation Proclamation was more of a military strategy. By proclaiming that all enslaved people in the states that made up the Confederacy were free (History), he made it clear where the North stood against the Confederacy’s goals, dissuaded countries opposed to slavery, like Britain and France, from aligning with the Southern states, and encouraged Black Americans to serve in the Union Army.
• Reflect: Who was alive in your family when Juneteenth happened? How many generations ago was that?
This was in the midst of the Civil War. States seceding from the Union, like Texas, weren’t interested in what the North had to say. Texas actually had state laws that made freeing enslaved people illegal. It wasn’t until the North sent troops in person that enslaved people were emancipated, which means that Emancipation Days are different for different cities in the state (NYTimes).
You can hear Laura Smalley, who was enslaved as a child on this day, talk about what it felt like to hear the announcement here.
Celebrations in Galveston, Texas, have become symbolic in our country after rising to prominence in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. Juneteenth celebrations gained even more attention on their 150th anniversary and again after the “racial reckoning” in 2020. In June 2021, President Biden appointed Juneteenth as a federal holiday, the first addition since Martin Luther King Day, which was established in 1986 (NPR). Corporations are increasingly making it a paid holiday. Forty-seven states mark it as a state holiday (although many don’t offer paid time off for their employees).
When they celebrated July 4, Independence Day, Black people weren’t free or independent.”
Donald Payton, Historian
But we are still not free.
Nope. Juneteenth didn’t officially end slavery for everyone. That didn’t happen until the 13th Amendment went into effect in December 1865, which stated that “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction” (National Archives).
Let’s say that Juneteenth DID make everyone immediately 100% free. Free does not mean equal. Enslaved people were no longer enslaved. It did NOT mean we had a right to bear arms, or vote, to work, or go to school, or marry someone outside our race, or own land. It gave us our freedom but none of our rights. So remember that Juneteenth only happened 157 years ago. And Black people have been fighting for their rights to what white Americans have been granted since the Independence Day we still celebrate today.
Making Juneteenth official alone doesn’t do that. Without true and transformative action to protect the liberation of all people, celebrating can easily become a performative act of unity. What we desperately need is the solidarity and action behind the observation.
• Juneteenth marks the date that Union soldiers arrived on foot in Galveston, Texas, to enforce the Emancipation Proclamation issued years before.
• The date is a cultural celebration for many southern Black communities.
• The protests for Black lives in the summer of 2020 sparked a larger effort to recognize this date in the dominant culture, including in workplaces, schools, and politics.