June Nineteenth, also known as Juneteenth, marks the true birth of a land of freedom for all Americans, and it deserves far more recognition than it's been given.
July 4th is a massively popular day in U.S. history. It commemorates the historic Declaration of Independence, the very announcement that stipulated the thirteen American colonies were no longer under the yoke of British rule. But there is a lesser-known, albeit more important day in the history of America: June Nineteenth, most commonly known as Juneteenth.
As you'll soon find, this is the single most significant day for people in America, since it represents the true declaration of universal freedom and independence in the country.
What exactly is Juneteenth?
Juneteenth, also called Juneteenth Independence Day, or Freedom Day, is a holiday that celebrates the announcement of the abolition of slavery in Texas on June 19, 1865, after the end of the American Civil War. The celebration has more widely been taken to commemorate the emancipation of African American slaves throughout the U.S., especially in the Confederate States.
Why is it important?
The answer is pretty obvious; but just in case, here it is:
Juneteenth represents the emancipation of the last remaining slaves in America and thus marks the end of slavery in the country—a huge step for basic human rights.
What are the origins of Juneteenth?
To understand this, let's take a quick look into the past. On January 1, 1863, U.S. president Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which declared that "all persons held as slaves are, and henceforward shall be free." The proclamation came nearly 3 years after the country was plunged into a bloody civil war in which the southern Confederate States fought the northern Union states over the status of slavery in America.
As you probably know, states in the South of the U.S. wanted to hold on to the old, racist ways of slavers and slaves, whereas the Union took the fundamental notion that all humans are created equal seriously. And though the Union eventually won the war, and thus officially freed all the slaves on paper, the southern whites refused to put the Emancipation Proclamation into effect immediately. The Proclamation dictated that "all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State in rebellion against the United States” shall be from that instant treated as a free person. But in practice, only a few areas along the Union lines obeyed—at first.
The fighting went on even after Robert E. Lee surrendered to the Union in 1865. Remnants of the Confederate Armies kept chasing freedmen and freedwomen and defying the Emancipation Proclamation, especially in the remote inland reaches of Texas, which was relatively isolated from the direct influence of the Union. So, to deal with the situation, General Gordon Granger entered the state to occupy and force it into submission on June 19, 1865, where he made an important, fateful, and undeniable announcement:
"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 personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor."
But even this announcement didn't free all African American slaves immediately. As was expected from people who were raised to believe they were special and superior, whites throughout the South did everything in their power to stop others from enacting the Proclamation.
Texas was particularly pernicious for black persons who would declare themselves free, as historian Elizabeth Hayes Turner notes. “There is much evidence to suggest that southern whites—especially Confederate parolees—perpetrated more acts of violence against newly freed bondspeople in Texas than in other states,” she wrote in an essay about the importance of Juneteenth. "Reports showed that blacks continued in a form of slavery, intimidated by former Confederate soldiers still in uniform and bearing arms."
Accounts paint a terrifying picture from the time: African Americans were hung, murdered, lynched, and harassed all around the Confederate States as they were trying to act on their legal freedom. Those who were caught trying to flee to the Northern states in search of safety were shot.
Many died in these senseless acts of racist violence. But Granger's announcement nonetheless spread like wildfire across the state, and eventually the whites were powerless to stop it. Former slaves began celebrating the occasion, and June Nineteenth became a pivotal part of their opposition against would-be slavers and racists in America. Every year, they would gather around their southern homes and read the Proclamation out loud—much to the dismay of white Texans who believed the abolition of slavery was the end of their own Confederate rights.
The first time Juneteenth was publicly celebrated was in 1866, and its popularity has been growing ever since—especially after the atrocities that stemmed from the Jim Crow laws. The Civil Rights Movement and the struggle of their leaders made it clear the festivity was in need of a boost, and Texas finally made June Nineteenth a state holiday in 1980. By 1997, Congress had recognized it as "Juneteenth Independence Day."
Why Juneteenth is more relevant and powerful than Independence Day—and should be taken as such by the whole country
Hopefully, by now the indisputable relevance of Juneteenth has become clear for everyone. We're talking about the emancipation of all people across the U.S., not just the privileged few. This is a big deal. Though the black community was discriminated against in both the eyes of the law as in the eyes of society well into the 20th century (and still today suffers from systemic oppression), Juneteenth marks an extremely important step towards true equality and freedom for every person in the country.
For this reason alone, Juneteenth is a true American holiday for all Americans, more so than Independence Day. Only after that fateful day could people from all races finally and truly call themselves free.
America boasts the idea that it, and no other, is the "land of the free." The essence of this nation, according to its own conception, is freedom and opportunity. If that's the standard by which the "true America" is measured, then it's safe to say that America as such wasn't truly born on July 4th, 1776. That was, if anything, the birth of a sort of prototype for what would become the country Americans value—but there was no true freedom in that landscape until almost a century later.
In short, if America really is the land of the free, then America was born on July 19, 1865, and Juneteenth should be celebrated as the real Independence Day.
At least, this is true in a symbolism deeply embedded in the American spirit, if congruence ruled the minds and hearts in the U.S. It's not that July 4th shouldn't be commemorated. But considering where we now stand, in the 21st century, it's a little odd that we would still give such importance to Independence Day while Juneteenth remains mostly a minor occasion. It ought to be the other way around, in all fairness. At the very least, we should all acknowledge the significance of Juneteenth as the birth of freedom, give it the credit it deserves, and declare it a centerpiece in American celebrations.
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