Juneteenth is known by many names. It’s officially Juneteenth National Independence Day, but is also known as Jubilee Day, Emancipation Day, Freedom Day and Black Independence Day. On that day, we commemorate the emancipation of enslaved persons of African descent and celebrate the richness of the African American culture.
Before (and since) Juneteenth became a federal holiday, I’ve been deeply curious about the emotions of those enslaved persons in Galveston, Texas, who listened to Union Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger’s announcement of General Order No. 3 proclaiming freedom for the enslaved persons of Texas on June 19, 1865. Although there are arguments related to the location of the announcement, I can imagine crowds of enslaved persons gathered at 24th and Broadway below the veranda of Ashton Villa as Granger read:
“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.”
After the imagined euphoria subsided, I wonder if those formerly enslaved persons realized that, although freed, they had been admonished to return to where they came from. Returning from where they came, could their fates really have changed?
Reflecting on my personal thoughts and emotions on June 17, 2021, I can remember the initial joy of receiving the announcement of a Juneteenth national holiday. In part, I had hoped for a renewed affirmation of the worth and humanity of African Americans and a recognition of our integral and undeniable participation in the story of this nation. However, congressional inaction proved this holiday to be an empty gesture.
Lest we forget, on June 25, 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court held it unconstitutional to use the coverage formula of the Voting Rights Act to determine which jurisdictions are subject to the preclearance requirement of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act (Shelby v. Holder). The effect of the decision is that jurisdictions identified by the coverage formula no longer need to seek preclearance for new voting changes which supported the reemergence of racially motivated voter suppression.
Lest we forget, on May 25, 2020, George Floyd, a 47-year-old African American male, was brutally murdered while in the custody of Minneapolis police. His death was another in a never-ending series of indiscriminate police murders of African Americans. If not for the courage and testimony of witnessing bystanders, the murder of Floyd would have been another institutionally justified legal lynching.
While creating a national holiday to commemorate an event of significance, Congress ignored/denied the most important and fundamental right and protection available to African Americans by failing to enact voter protections or justice in policing. It’s as if we’re being told, “You can party, but only if you can survive.”
The significance of Juneteenth to the African American and larger community cannot be underestimated. It represents the awakening of the hopes and dreams of a people who had previously been denied both hope and dreams. It is the first new federal holiday since the King Holiday was adopted in 1983, but it must be more than just a party. It must be a vehicle for change — for improvement in the quality of life that all African Americans can reasonably expect for meritorious achievement.
Williams is president of the National Congress of Black Women.