This might be the year Juneteenth gets the respect it deserves. It’s about time.
Juneteenth marks the day in 1865 when people held as slaves in Texas finally learned that the abhorrent practice had ended two years previously, when President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.
The proclamation freed “all persons held as slaves” in the states that had rebelled against the Union, and Texas was one of them. To understand how it took more than two years for slaves in Texas to learn they were free, you have to know a little bit of history about the Lone Star State.
Before Texas was a state, it was ruled by Spain and later, Mexico. Both governments encouraged the freeing of slaves but in the 1820s, when slave owners from the Southern states began migrating to Texas to grow cotton, the number of slaves began to grow. When Texas won its independence from Mexico in 1836, slavery was written into the new republic’s constitution.
In 1845, when Texas was annexed to the U.S., there were some 30,000 slaves in the state. By 1850, that number had jumped to more than 50,000. Ten years later, the slave population numbered more than 180,000.
Texas seceded from the Union in 1861 and joined the Confederacy. At that point, almost one-quarter of Texas families owned at least one slave. Following the Emancipation Proclamation, Southern slaveholders began moving their human captives into Texas, where few Union soldiers were stationed and the proclamation could be ignored.
That changed on June 19, 1865, when Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger and 2,000 Union soldiers arrived in Galveston and declared all slaves free by reading this proclamation:
“The people of Texas are informed that in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired laborer.”
A year later, Juneteenth celebrations began across Texas and eventually would pop up in other parts of the South. The Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and ’60s spread awareness of the holiday.
In April 1968, my uncle, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in the midst of planning the Poor People’s Campaign, which was to culminate in a peaceful march in Washington, D.C., to call on the government to address the housing and employment needs of all indigent people in the nation.
The campaign continued after his death and the Poor People’s March took place on Juneteenth. People from all over the country gathered in our nation’s capital that day, and when they left, many of them took a newfound knowledge of and respect for the holiday with them. Celebrations began springing up in other parts of the country. My family has always celebrated Juneteenth.
Texas declared Juneteenth an official state holiday in 1980 and now, 46 states and the District of Columbia have some kind of observances.
Texas declared Juneteenth an official state holiday in 1980 and now, 46 states and the District of Columbia have some kind of observances. But somehow, the holiday remained a well-kept secret.
My colleague Janet Morana, executive director of Priests for Life, was a New York City public school teacher in an urban school, and even she had never heard of Juneteenth until I came to work for Priests for Life as director of Civil Rights for the Unborn in 2003.
This year, things have changed for the better for this holiday.
Amid the Black Lives Matter protests, President Trump’s campaign inadvertently scheduled his first post-pandemic rally on June 19. When some black leaders asked him to change the date, our president was happy to do so, and it was widely reported in the media.
Now Juneteenth is on the national radar, and that’s a good thing. All of us can stand to brush up on our history and this date is too important to be forgotten. Some major companies, like the NFL and Nike, are making it a formal holiday.
I think it’s time to go further and make it a national holiday. Statues of Confederate generals and racist officials are being toppled all over the country, but we can never erase our painful past with regard to slavery.
What we can and should do, as Americans of every color, is celebrate its end.