Liberation: Celebrating Juneteenth
Juneteenth is a holiday that celebrates the emancipation of those who had been enslaved in the United States. Specifically, June 19, 1865 was the date Union soldiers, led by Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger, landed at Galveston, Texas, with news the war had ended and the enslaved were now free — two and a half years after President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation — which became official January 1, 1863.
So, what does it mean? Beyond liberating slaves from the hardships of building America for 400 years, Juneteenth marks the day our country opened itself to the true possibility of freedom for all. While the Fourth of July is widely celebrated by most Americans as Independence Day, what did that mean for those who were considered three-fifths of a man?
As the great African American leader, Frederick Douglass, said at his “What to the Slave Is Fourth of July?” speech on July 5, 1852, “The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity, and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought light and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.”
At the time, independence was celebrated for a country whose citizens were free, but for descendants of Africa, it was not until June 19, 1865, that liberty, prosperity, and real independence were truly attainable.
"By choosing to celebrate the last place in the South that freedom touched, celebrating Juneteenth as a country shows true progress, true solidarity, and true unity in these United States: total liberation."
From 1865 on, the celebration of Juneteenth has primarily been celebrated by Black Americans — our own “Independence Day” to rejoice in freedom, celebrate with great food, wear the best attire (shedding the rags of slavery), and remember those families torn apart or murdered during slavery. However, unlike Independence Day, it is not celebrated by the country in unity. The time has come for all Americans to celebrate the great significance of when news of the Confederacy’s defeat reached all and true freedom prevailed. Until recent times, history books only focused on President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, giving very little, if any, recognition of Juneteenth — extracting from history the executive orders passed down to the last slaveowners in Texas in 1865. The country does not celebrate this freedom; instead, it was almost forgotten — until now. As we progress as a country, we push for recognition and inclusion, and in many states, Juneteenth is a recognized holiday. On June 17, President Joseph Biden signed into legislation that Juneteenth will become a federally recognized holiday.
While physical slavery ended, there is still the emotional labor that continues to bind many African Americans even in the present day. As a country, we will always honor Independence Day, remember the horror of 9/11, and celebrate our veterans who served and currently protect our country. However, we must also uplift a holiday that signifies the true freedom of all people in the United States. While the road has been long with the reconstruction period, Jim Crow, the Civil Rights Movement, and decades of mass incarceration, it is time that all Americans take a sincere step in racial healing by joining Black Americans in the celebration of Juneteenth. By choosing to celebrate the last place in the South that freedom touched, celebrating Juneteenth as a country shows true progress, true solidarity, and true unity in these United States: total liberation.
This article first appeared in Spokane Coeur d’Alene Living magazine, a regional lifestyle publication based in the Pacific Northwest.