Word of slavery’s end traveled slowly, and for those who were largely isolated from Union armies, life continued as if freedom did not exist.
This was especially the case in Texas, where thousands of slaves were not made aware of freedom until June 19, 1865, when Union Gen. Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston and issued an order officially freeing them. Their celebration would serve as the basis of June 19 — or Juneteenth — a holiday celebrating emancipation in the US.
There’s plenty of speculation as to why this moment, rather than the earlier Emancipation Proclamation — issued by Abraham Lincoln in 1863 — or the later 13th Amendment formally abolishing all slavery became the basis for a celebration of slavery’s end and a remembrance of its legacy. The most common is probably the idea that emancipation was originally, and in important respects remains, a work in progress, as Henry Louis Gates Jr. observed:
[A]s Ralph Ellison evoked in his posthumous novel, Juneteenth — we remember the shining promise of emancipation, along with the bloody path America took by delaying it and deferring fulfillment of those simple, unanticipating words in Gen. Granger’s original order No. 3: that “This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves.”
Another way to make the same point is to note that official proclamations of emancipation and of equal rights on paper (dating back, really, to the Declaration of Independence) need constantly to be compared to the reality of unequal rights and of burdens imposed on people today by past discrimination.
Today, a shocking number of people believe that nonwhite Americans enjoy superior privileges to their white fellow-citizens. It’s become a truism on the political right that discussing white racism is itself racist. This means we are a country badly in need of a refresher course in U.S. history, encompassing not just slavery but Jim Crow and such vestiges of official racism as unequal wealth, mass incarceration, residential and educational segregation, and disparate lifespans and health conditions. It also would not hurt if the white majority (destined to become a white plurality) of Americans began to regard the very concept of racial equality not as a source of resentment over lost status but as something inherently joyful and patriotic — much as the original celebrants of Juneteenth considered it.
The worst way to think about Juneteenth is as an “African-American holiday.” Even if you don’t find it all that relevant today, there’s no question it marked a moment in our national history when America’s original sin of human bondage began to be expunged — slowly and gradually — from the Constitution and laws, if not necessarily from hearts and minds. Juneteenth is the good news that needs to keep spreading, until it’s no longer news at all.