The Meaning of Juneteenth

June 19th, 2023

To understand the meaning of Juneteenth, we must go back to January 1, 1863, when the Emancipation Proclamation, issued primarily as a wartime measure by President Abraham Lincoln, took effect. It was expected to broaden the goals of the Civil War to include the abolition of slavery. Unfortunately, this Proclamation applied only to the Confederate states at war against the United States and as such did not apply to the border states that continued to enslave African Americans until years later or to the Southern parishes and counties that were already under Union control.

On June 19, 1865 — 71 days after the Civil War ended, and two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation— Major General Gordon Granger and his 2,000 Union troops reached Galveston, Texas to announce that the more than 250,000 enslaved Black people in the state were freed by executive decree. Liberation had finally reached the shores of Texas.

June 19, 1865, became known as Juneteenth to commemorate the end of slavery in the United States. The name “Juneteenth” references the date of the holiday, combining the words “June” and “nineteenth”. Juneteenth is now a federal holiday in the United States commemorating the emancipation of enslaved African Americans.

However, it wasn’t until the ratification of the 13th amendment on December 6 of the same year that the Emancipation Proclamation objective of abolishing all slavery and involuntary servitude was accomplished, but still with an exception clause related to punishment for crime. Some slave owners, unwilling to give up free labor, refuse to release their slaves until forced to, in person, by a representative of the government. The exception clause has also impacted the mass incarceration of Black people that continues today.

Of course, enslavement of people of African descent had been prevalent throughout the Americas, but the United Stated was not the first country to abolish it. In my home country of Haiti, a mere 578 miles (930 kms) from the US, the world’s first Black Republic fought hard against the French army, gained its freedom and proclaimed its independence from France on January 1st, 1804, more than 60 years earlier.  The US government did everything in their power during that period to prevent the spread of Haiti’s liberation locally, afraid of a possible contagion in which American Slaves would imitate the Haitians. All Haitians, despite their struggles, even today, are proud to celebrate their independence each January 1st and their flag on May 18th. I dream of the day where all Americans will celebrate Juneteenth in remembrance of the day slavery was officially abolished in this country.

It's important that we commemorate Juneteenth to ensure that everyone recognizes and acknowledges the hardships enslaved Black American faced until their official freedom on June 19,1865. In addition to marking this important moment in our history, Juneteenth reminds us of the ongoing legacy of racism that we must work to address. Now that Juneteenth is a federal holiday, I am hopeful that it will become more and more widely recognized as an official holiday throughout the country.

Acknowledgement: This blog was inspired by a June 18, 2020 article “Juneteenth Reminds Us that the Fight for True Liberty Continues” written by Derryn Moten who is a Chair and Professor of History at Alabama State University Department of History and Political Sci.

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