Regardless of your ethnicity, you have ancestors who were living somewhere in the world on the historic day of June 19, 1865. For the black residents of Galveston, Texas, however, the day was like no other. On that day, a Union general arrived to Galveston, making the belated announcement that slavery had ended in the former Confederate states, including Texas—two and a half years prior.
Historian Henry Louis Gates, Jr. reflects on the history of Juneteenth, noting that “by choosing to celebrate the last place in the South that freedom touched...we remember the shining promise of emancipation, along with the bloody path America took by delaying it.”=
The Emancipation Proclamation, an executive order authored by President Abraham Lincoln with input from Frederick Douglass, was issued on January 1, 1863, instantly freeing enslaved people in the Confederate states. In all of American history, no other single political gesture—including the signing of the US Constitution itself—marked a more significant step toward fulfilling the nation’s promise of freedom for all.
However, the black residents in the island city of Galveston, on the gulf of Texas, were not apprised of this liberating news. For more than two years after the signing of the order, they remained bound under the yoke of slavery. Upon hearing the deferred news, the nearly 250,000 formerly enslaved people of Texas broke into jubilee and celebration. The date would be remembered every year and would soon be called Juneteenth—a contraction of the words ‘June’ and ‘nineteenth’.
For generations thereafter, hundreds of communities across the U. S. eventually regarded June nineteenth as a holiday, replete with family-friendly festivities and cultural celebrations. Michigan’s own Congresswoman Barbara Rose Collins introduced a bill in 1996 that petitioned the U.S. government to make Juneteenth a federal holiday. In her congressional remarks, she stated, “the dehumanizing and degrading conditions of slavery were unnecessarily prolonged for hundreds of thousands of black men, women, and children, because our American government failed to communicate the truth.”
Those of us committed to advancing civil rights—to promoting the core principles of justice, fairness and freedom—have much to learn from that memorialized day of June 19, 1865.
Today’s young people have a common phrase that simply warns listeners to “stay woke.” Black history repeatedly teaches all of us to “stay woke” by being vigilantly alert, politically informed, and civically engaged.
While we have come a long way from June 1865, we must still confront oppressive conditions—such as the police violence, voter suppression and mass incarceration issues that the ACLU tackles—that require us to “stay woke” in June 2017. Juneteenth serves as a starting point for us, a reference in time, compelling us to consider how much further we can go if we just know. The Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History exists to help us all know.
Meanwhile, Juneteenth reminds us to be aware, to boldly challenge unfulfilled promises. In any arena of life, almost free is unfree, and delayed emancipation is denied emancipation.
LaNesha DeBardelaben is the Senior Vice President of Education & Exhibitions at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History.