Opinion: Juneteenth is now a national holiday, but it has always been in the hearts and minds of many. Perhaps not surprisingly, some Americans have never known about Juneteenth. Texas for years has celebrated the holiday as a state holiday, but it’s likely many taking a holiday did not know the true significance of the celebration. While the historic event was certainly not the official end of slavery in the United States, it has become a celebration of the symbolic end of slavery for all Americans.
Historically speaking, Lincoln’s great Emancipation Proclamation did little to free slaves. The proclamation ended slavery in the states in rebellion, but few realize that it left slavery in full operation in five states. Five slave states remained in the Union during the Civil War and were not subject to the proclamation. The enforcement of the Emancipation Proclamation depended on the arrival and control in rebellion states by Union forces. The Five slave-states remaining in the Union during the Civil War waited until December to see the end of slavery. While slavery might end in one state, it may well have still been in operation in another state or territory. Because of the various dates slavery ended, no historian can say with certainty when it ended for any individual man, woman, or child. Despite this fact, Juneteenth day has a long history of being the celebrated date for the end of what President Biden calls America’s “Original Sin.”
What Juneteenth does hold over all other potential dates for the end of slavery is the fact it is the oldest celebrated date for the end of slavery in the United States. It has been called Jubilee Day, Black Independence Day, and Emancipation Day. In history, it is the day Union troops arrived in Galveston, Texas, under the command of General Gordon Granger and shared the Emancipation Proclamation three years after it had been signed.
If you could step back in time, imagine being in Galveston, Texas, on June 19, 1865. It’s a hot day. Business is likely going on as usual. Maybe you are a slave, maybe you are free, but all you know for certain is that a Union group of soldiers have arrived. If you are enslaved, you may be standing near your owner, or you are working, or maybe you’re in town to pick up some supplies. This group of Union men moves through the city reading Army General Order Number 3 to everyone. Crowds would have likely followed them. They would have heard it read several times. To some, it must have been a shock, unbelievable, or even as the old saying goes, “Too good to be true.” By the time the group reaches a church on Broadway, there must have been many people following and asking questions. As the order was last read at the church, this is what they would have heard, had explained to them if need be, but come to understand as the day Freedom arrived in Galveston:
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. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.“Juneteenth”. Texas State Library and Archives Commission.
Many would naturally be confused, but within that order, four words would have struck home for any person in slavery… “all slaves are free.” From the small island of Galveston, the word would spread through songs, messages, and across the land, “All Slaves are free.”
June the 19th, 1865, would become the day that all citizens of the United States would recognize that after 89 years, for the first time, all people in the United States could cling to the words of the Declaration of Independence. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
On June 17, 2021, the United States officially recognized Juneteenth Day. It will be known as “Juneteenth National Independence Day.” Some have argued that it should not be called “National Independence Day” because it conflicts with July 4 or “Independence Day,” but there is no conflict. Where “Independence Day” declared our nation’s independence from England, “Juneteenth National Independence Day” recognizes our true, internal independence day. While the dates may have varied in 1865, the fact remains that until that year, 89 years after independence from England, there was no true and universal independence within our country. As long as one man, woman, or child remained in slavery, we could not call ourselves the land of the free. No, “Independence Day” is a day of freedom from foreign control. “Juneteenth National Independence Day” is the acknowledgment and acceptance that all men and women living in the United States are united not only as Americans but as free Americans. “Juneteenth National Independence Day” is a true representation of the day we all became free and independent.