by Dr. Nathan Hardy
Since the Declaration of Independence declared that all people are created equal with unalienable rights to life and liberty, the United States has struggled to live up to these ideals. The hypocrisy of slavery and historical mistreatment of Black Americans exemplify the struggle, driving the nation to mature and become a human rights leader. As the world’s oldest democracy and assurer of “the success of liberty” to borrow President John F. Kennedy’s words, the nation should reflect on its history and the importance of the Juneteenth holiday.
Juneteenth marked the date all Americans finally learned they were free, when Major General Gordon Granger announced in Galveston, Texas that “all slaves are free” on June 19, 1865 – roughly 2.5 years after the Emancipation Proclamation freed slaves in rebelling states on January 1, 1863 and 2 months after the end of the Civil War on April 9, 1865. This was the first time slaves in Texas learned about their freedom. The inexcusable tardiness of the news given their masters and government officials should have known when the news originally broke with the telegraphs and newspapers of the time, the large number of slaves in Texas due in part to slaveowners from other Confederate states moving their slaves there to avoid freeing them, the abuse and murder of slaves who acted on their newfound freedom are among the atrocities against life and liberty Black Americans endured.
It is Juneteenth that reminds this nation of its past struggles to be the land of the free, the gritty details often not covered in history schoolbooks. Juneteenth reminds how Black Americans were not allowed in the military to fight in the Civil War for the freedom of their people until the Emancipation Proclamation despite fighting in the Revolutionary War for the nation’s own freedom, how Confederates forced free and enslaved Black Americans to work in a civil war that was against their freedom and enslaved captured Black Americans from the North (according to the African American Odyssey, 7th Edition), how the Union regarded slaves as contraband property to repurpose for war against the Confederates, how President Abraham Lincoln upset anti-slavery advocates with his initial plans to recolonize Black Americans out of the country and his Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation of September 22, 1862 to keep slavery in states that returned to the Union, and how the final Emancipation Proclamation only freed slaves in rebelling states and kept slaves in bondage in non-rebelling border states such as Delaware (one of the last three states to end slavery).
It also reminds how Confederate soldiers were not prosecuted for rebelling against the country and committing war offenses such as Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest who led murders of Black American Union soldiers in the Fort Pillow massacre and later became a founder of the Ku Klux Klan, and how the public mob murder practice of lynching killed countless Black Americans without wrongdoers being prosecuted, not to mention after the Civil War Reconstruction in the South elected government officials – many white – who sought to protect the freedom of former slaves were also lynched or otherwise terrorized out of office. This paved the way for the racist Jim Crow laws and glorification of Confederate rebels that followed.
It is Juneteenth that shows the value of everyone’s life and liberty – black, white, and any color in between – and inspires this nation to exhibit strength, not fragility, in taking action to protect them. Whenever elected government officials are threatened, which has been a concern in this modern era, let Juneteenth inspire protection of their lives and liberty to avoid a repeat of history like those terrorized post-Civil War officials. Whenever the freedom to vote, protest, or other rights are threatened, let Juneteenth inspire protection of those rights.
While celebrating Juneteenth, consider the traditions of reflection, education, achievement, prayer, and cookouts featuring red drinks and foods to commemorate the blood shed to overcame slavery and discrimination. Celebrate achievements such as Texas being last to free the slaves yet first to adopt Juneteenth as a holiday and Philadelphia running independence celebrations from June 19th to July 4th that highlight connections between the holidays.
Reflect on ways to assure the success of liberty. Racism and hate – the root of much of the aforementioned struggles that have divided the nation and its success – are taught. Let the nation unteach this through Juneteenth education, breaking bread and praying together. As the saying goes, families that pray together stay together.
# # #
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Dr. Nathan Hardy is a professor who teaches courses on Black American society and business at Neumann University in Aston, PA and serves on the university’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Council.