Happy Juneteenth! The celebration, held since 1865, has gone by many names over the years — Jubilee Day, Emancipation Day, Black Independence Day — but its official name, designated last year along with national holiday status, best captures its significance.
“Juneteenth National Independence Day” describes a holiday for a nation ready to start living by its founding principles of equality and its promise of a more perfect union. If slavery is America’s original sin, then Juneteenth is a celebration of its baptism.
Much as we come together to mark our country’s beginning every Fourth of July, all Americans should honor and rejoice today at our nation’s spiritual rebirth.
As Fredrick Douglass said in 1852, as long as human beings were held in bondage, the United States could never be true to itself.
“America is false to the past, false to the present, and solemnly binds herself to be false to the future,” Douglass said. “The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth of July is yours, not mine.”
Slavery did not end on June 19, 1865 — that would have to wait until the 13th Amendment was ratified in December of that year. But that day was chosen as commemoration of when news reached Texas that the Civil War was over, two months after Confederate commander Robert E. Lee surrendered.
Union Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, along with 2,000 federal troops — including hundreds of Black soldiers — and informed still enslaved Black Americans that they were free under the Emancipation Proclamation.
Juneteenth has been celebrated, in one form or another, ever since.
Appropriately, it was Texas that first declared Juneteenth a state holiday in 1980. Over the decades, more states followed, including Washington in 2007. Last year, Congress and President Joe Biden recognized June 19 as a federal holiday.
This year is the first time it will be a paid day off for Washington state employees after the Legislature passed a bill sponsored by Rep. Melanie Morgan, D-Parkland, in 2021.
“This says we belong as Black African Americans. That we are humans,” Morgan said after the bill was signed into law. “I believe it’s another step towards declaring Washington state as an anti-racist state, which leads to reconciliation, healing and true inclusion.”
As Morgan recognized, progress on racial equality is an ongoing process. There are constant, frustrating reminders of how slow that progress is.
National interest in Juneteenth grew on the heels of the racial reckoning sparked by the murder of George Floyd at the hands of police. And as we celebrate this year, we are barely a month beyond the racially motivated shooting in Buffalo and only a few days removed from an audit of the King County Sheriff’s Office that found troubling bias against Black people.
Yet, Juneteenth is not meant as an occasion to dwell on Black trauma, it is ultimately a celebration of hope.
Black Americans who learned of their newfound freedom on that sunny Texas day by the waters of the Gulf of Mexico did not expect things would change overnight. They had seen too much and knew too well that no proclamation could wipe away centuries of white supremacy, but the end of slavery meant they finally had the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
That more than 150 years later America continues to wrestle with the past is a humbling reminder of how deep the problem goes.
Yet, as we attend a Juneteenth parade or festival, support a Black-owned business, or simply enjoy the long weekend, we must also recognize how far we’ve come. We must find strength in knowing that the challenge to a more equal America may be monumental, but it is not intractable.
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