The living lesson of Juneteenth

On June 19, 1865, a Union general arrived in Texas with news that slavery had ended. It was an announcement 2½ years too late, and one that today calls upon us all to remain vigilant.

Volunteers serve food to community members at a Juneteenth community celebration at Rainier Beach Community Center in Seattle, June 13, 2019. (Photo by Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut)

“History, as nearly no one seems to know, is not merely something to be read. And it does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past. On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do. It could scarcely be otherwise, since it is to history that we owe our frames of reference, our identities, and our aspirations.”  James Baldwin 

History is never really about the past. History is for us, the living. Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness testifies to this truth. So does the documentary film 13th by Ava Duvernay, a revealing investigation into the history of U.S. racial inequality. The new Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Alabama, which examines the transition from U.S. enslavement to mass incarceration, brings history to the present in evocative ways. 

And likewise the story of Juneteenth. Before Juneteenth became a cultural holiday, it was a historic event. It happened on June 19, 1865, when a Union general arrived to Galveston, Texas, with the belated announcement that slavery had ended in the former Confederate states, including Texas — 2½ years prior. 

The Emancipation Proclamation, an executive order authored by President Abraham Lincoln with input from Frederick Douglass, was issued on Jan. 1, 1863, instantly freeing enslaved people in the Confederate states. In all of American history, no other single political gesture marked a more significant step toward fulfilling the nation’s promise of freedom for all.

However, the Black residents in the island Texas city of Galveston, on the Gulf of Mexico, were not apprised of this liberating news. For more than two years after the signing of the order, they remained bound under the yoke of slavery. Upon hearing the deferred news, the nearly 250,000 formerly enslaved people of Texas broke into jubilee and celebration. The date would be remembered every year and would soon be called Juneteenth — a contraction of the words “June” and “nineteenth.”

For generations thereafter, hundreds of communities across the U.S. eventually regarded June 19 as a holiday, replete with family-friendly festivities and cultural celebrations. Michigan Congresswoman Barbara Rose Collins introduced a bill in 1996 that petitioned the U.S. government to make Juneteenth a federal holiday. In her congressional remarks on the legislation, which still hasn’t been enacted, she stated, “The dehumanizing and degrading conditions of slavery were unnecessarily prolonged for hundreds of thousands of black men, women, and children, because our American government failed to communicate the truth.” 

Although the crucial lesson of Juneteenth — to be vigilantly alert and politically informed — is rooted in the past, it is more importantly about the present. Studying events of the past, including Juneteenth, offers us strategies to face current challenges and find our way forward. History reminds us that ‘we’ve seen this before, and we’ve overcome it before.’ The present cannot surprise those who are informed by the past. 

History, then, provides us with insight when battling the disorientation of gentrification and the disappointment of displacement that is occurring in King County, a rapidly growing region changing before our very eyes. Amid these profound changes are profound struggles: homelessness and hunger, unchecked mental health realities, crime and violence, drug dealings and drug abuse, human trafficking, health care disparities, child abuse and neglect, uneven educational opportunities, lack of affordable housing, gender inequities, discrimination and bigotry, racism and bleak futures for our youth. We have a long way to go until we as a community are free from these challenges. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “None of us are free until we are all free.” The Northwest African American Museum exists to help us face these issues and the history that precedes them, in hopes of illuminating a path out of the darkness.  

Juneteenth serves as a starting point for us, a reference in time, compelling us to consider how much further we can go if we just know. Juneteenth reminds us to be aware, to boldly challenge unfulfilled promises. In any arena of life, almost free is unfree, and delayed emancipation is denied emancipation.

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