Under the blistering heat of the Texas sun June 19, 1865, 250,000 slaves, according to the Smithsonian, were finally set free. It had been two months after the surrender of Robert E. Lee and over two years after the Emancipation Proclamation. This year is only the second time we as a country, honor the day and their freedom.
That it took so long for Union soldiers to get to Texas to make that announcement is tragic, but given the time period, perhaps understandable. What is beyond infuriating is that slave owners knew – they knew they had lost the war. They knew the people they kept indentured were free yet they did everything they could to keep them from freedom.
Laura Smalley was a child born into slavery in Texas, and during an archived interview from 1941, according to an NPR article, said, the “old master” came home from fighting in the Civil War and didn’t tell the people he enslaved what had happened.
“Old master didn’t tell, you know, they was free,” Smalley said in the recording. “I think now they say they worked them, six months after that. Six months. And turn them loose on the 19th of June. That’s why, you know, we celebrate that day.”
In fact, stories abound of plantation owners forcing hundreds of slaves to move to Texas during this time in order to continue the practice. Some slaves escaped, prior to Juneteenth, fled the county altogether into Mexico to build a new life, a free life.
Juneteenth has been celebrated as a Day of Freedom by Black Americans in many areas since 1865. History classes have largely ignored it. When Biden signed the holiday into legislation in 2021, non-black citizens knew nothing about the date.
Since Juneteenth has become federally acknowledged, people have criticized the holiday. One headline I came across read “Juneteenth has already been a disaster.” I disagree.
There is currently a push preventing teaching about slavery, the civil war or racism. Let’s face it, we already have not done a good job, if this movement succeeds our children will know even less of our history.
So let’s take a pause regardless of race and creed, and reflect on the struggle against Anti-Black racism, as well as Black resilience. Our history isn’t always pleasant, slavery is only one bad chapter. Unless we acknowledge the past we can’t move forward to heal, to be the best we can be, or a democracy that works for all.
With that in mind, I want to leave you with a portion of Amanda Gorman’s Inaugural poem “The Hill We Climb:”
“Every breath from my bronze-pounded chest, we will raise this wounded world into a wondrous one.
We will rise from the golden hills of the West.
We will rise from the windswept Northeast where our forefathers first realized revolution.
We will rise from the lake-rimmed cities of the Midwestern states.
We will rise from the sun-baked South.
We will rebuild, reconcile, and recover.
And every known nook of our nation and every corner called our country, our people diverse and beautiful, will emerge battered and beautiful.
When day comes, we step out of the shade aflame and unafraid.
The new dawn blooms as we free it.
For there is always light, if only we’re brave enough to see it.”
If only we’re brave enough to be it.