President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, as the nation was embattled in its third year of bloody civil war. The proclamation declared “all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State … shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free; and the Executive Government of the United States … will recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons, and will do no act or acts to repress such persons, or any of them, in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom.” This proclamation changed the federal legal status of more than 3.5 million enslaved blacks.
When I was growing up, I sincerely believed that when the Emancipation Proclamation was the day ALL slaves were free. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I learned that on June 19, 1865, Union general Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston and issued General Order Number 3, which read, "The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free.” That was two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued. Two and a half years of continued fighting and hundreds of thousands of blacks still enslaved. Growing up, my classroom textbooks proclaimed Lincoln’s Emancipation as the date signaling the end of slavery and little, or nothing that I can remember, on the impact of General Granger’s arrival on June 19th, the moment when emancipation finally reached those in the deepest parts of the former Confederacy.
It wasn’t until 1980, over 100 years later, that Juneteenth became an official state holiday, through the efforts of Al Edwards, an African American State legislator. The successful passage of this bill marked Juneteenth as the first emancipation celebration granted official state recognition.
This year, I was able to attend a Juneteenth celebration in Dallas. I’ve been interested in attending a Juneteenth celebration for years, but was worried that as a white person, I would be intruding on something — that it wasn’t my place. I didn’t want to encroach on someplace I didn’t belong, but when I got there, I was nothing but embraced.
I heard an individual speak about why they are not surprised that Juneteenth isn’t recognized as a national holiday. While we have July 4th as “Independence Day,” that day does not truly reflect freedom for all. He explained that in a lot of ways, Juneteenth epitomizes that liberty, justice and freedom for all have always been delayed for black people. In the years after the civil war black people were subjected to lynching, the victims of Jim Crow laws and segregation. Still today blacks are disproportionally incarcerated, are subjected to discriminatory housing policies, and continue to be harassed with racial profiling and police brutality. These incidents make it clear that while progress has been made in black America’s 150 years out of slavery, extensive barriers are still utilized that continue to thwart progress.
Another individual spoke about how blacks continue to play an active role in the fight for freedom and that idea of promoting freedom for blacks is and remains a constant struggle that requires vigilance and because of that it’s imperative to not forget the history of black emancipation.
I heard one teenage girl say that she has never learned about Juneteenth in school, that she only knows about it from her own family tales and celebration. Another teenager told me that she only celebrates Juneteenth and doesn’t celebrate the 4th of July because it doesn’t represent the liberation and freedom of all races in America. She said that celebrating Juneteenth is a way to get back to her cultural center and celebrate our human rights milestone. She said ,“I have known nothing but freedom, but we’re not truly free if even one of us is erroneously chained.”
The last speaker spoke about how she is dubious about how free blacks are even today — not only because of police brutality against black people, but because less obvious things like black girls being discouraged from rocking their natural hair.
One of my closest friends summed it up like this to me: “For me, as a young queer black man living in a red state that has not done much to really push black history and its significance within this country — granted I feel like most of the country doesn't accept black history is American history unless you are black — it is extremely important because it is a part of my history.
Juneteenth should be celebrated as much as it is acknowledged, but the problem for me is that I don't feel as if most Americans really know or understand what Juneteenth means or even what it is. It is a part of American history that marks a turning point for a people that were and are still segregated, stereotyped, belittled, and degraded for the color of their skin and not judged on the content of their character. To me Juneteenth doesn't mean much, because we still live in a world, in a country that places people and boxes, incarcerates them in cages, and locks people away from the resources that they need to survive. If we lived in a society that understood freedom marks progression instead of regression, then I believe we could and would celebrate Juneteenth as a national holiday. Unfortunately that isn't the world we live in, but I am hopeful that one day people will recognize the importance a black history and accept that it is the truest part of American history, and hopefully with that knowledge we will be able to celebrate not only Juneteenth, but all other aspects of things we as Americans choose to ignore.