This Friday is the American holiday known as Juneteenth, although this holiday is largely unknown to many Americans — as it commemorates June 19, 1865, when Union General Gordon Granger announced federal orders in Galveston, Texas, that all previously enslaved people in Texas were free. The federal order was the Emancipation Proclamation, which was issued by President Abraham Lincoln on Sept. 22, 1862, effective as of Jan. 1, 1863.
The Emancipation Proclamation had formally freed slaves who resided in the states in rebellion almost 2 1/2 years earlier, and the Confederate states were defeated in April 1865. However, Texas was the most remote of the former Confederacy states with few Union troops, which meant enforcement of the proclamation had been slow and uneven. There were stories where many slave owners were said to have purposefully withheld the news of the proclamation from their slaves. The remaining slaves, those in the North, were freed by state action, or by the Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution, ratified in December 1865.
One can only imagine the joy and excitement that my ancestors and other former slaves felt when they heard the news of their freedom. The cries of jubilation, the prayers of thanks to a merciful God who brought them out of bondage and the answer to generations of prayer. Then came the waves of fear and trepidation of the unknown. How would they survive in a hostile environment? Where would they live or eat or earn a living? Would they be hunted down and enslaved again? How would they find their family members separated and sold by cruel and uncaring masters. Despite these incredible odds, thousands walked off the plantations without compensation for their toil, without a penny to their name, with only the clothes on their backs and with only a promise, a promise of freedom and all that freedom brings.
It’s important to revisit the meaning Juneteenth as America wrestles with the legacy of slavery, the failure of Reconstruction and agony of Jim Crow. America has never compensated former slaves and there are many who behave as through the South won the Civil War. America must deal with unrest and division as the result of turning law enforcement into a paramilitary force that invade Black and Brown communities rather than engage them. The police must stop murdering all Black people including our transgender siblings. America must deal with its failure to dismantle the visages of racism that permeates every fabric of our nation. America continues to fail to fulfill the promise of freedom given to an enslaved people and their ancestors in Texas on Juneteenth 1865 to live, work and determine their own destiny with the assurance of access to and protections by America’s institutions.
Finally every few years, America seems to be at war with itself when it comes to dealing with race and unfortunately this pattern with continue until we, in the words of Lincoln, “Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s 250 years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.” Internal tensions will cease when America deals with the legacy of slavery.
This article originally appeared in the Washington Blade and is made available in partnership with the National LGBT Media Association.