Every June 19, Americans celebrate Juneteenth. But even after more than 150 years. some people still have no idea what the day is all about.
Gather about 100 people in a room and mention the word Juneteenth. People of color will almost certainly know what it means. But far too many others still haven’t made the connection.
At this point, 158 years since the day that started it all, everyone should understand what it means and why it’s important.
But it’s about to become more clear now that Congress just voted to make it a national holiday.
The word itself is what we call a portmanteau. That’s a word that results from the blending of other words into one. We’ve all heard — and occasionally eat — brunch. That’s a portmanteau of breakfast and lunch, of course.
The words June and nineteenth blended together to form Juneteenth. Simple enough, right?
But it was the road leading to this important word that was anything but simple.
Juneteenth sets out to mark the end of slavery.
President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on Sept. 22, 1862. The proclamation and executive order specified that on Jan. 1, 1863, all enslaved people in the states that were then part of the Confederacy would become free.
But it wasn’t quite that simple. The states in the Confederacy, which the document described as “states in rebellion,” weren’t just going to free enslaved people on their own. While some still wish to deny it, slavery was a key reason states seceded from the Union. Slavery is even mentioned by name in the Articles of the Secession.
As Union armies advanced into Confederate states and recaptured them, enslaved people in those areas were told by Union soldiers about the presidential order and that they were, as of that moment, free.
Needless to say, it took time. Some enslaved people were made free on that date. For others, it took a lot longer.
We’re not talking about June 19, 1863. You have to remember that without broadcast media and the internet, news traveled much slower. In some cases, that news was intentionally delayed or suppressed altogether. Slave owners, after all, had a vested interest in keeping the news secret for as long as they could.
We’re not talking about June 19, 1864, either.
As hard as it might be to imagine, the news reached the last enslaved people in Galveston, Texas on June 19, 1865, after the end of the Civil War and the death of Lincoln.
That’s why June 19 became the day of celebrations, two-and-a-half years after the order making them free was originally issued.
You can debate whether slavery truly ever ended, however.
In 1962, ahead of the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation taking effect, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., called for President John F. Kennedy to issue a second Emancipation Proclamation. King asked Kennedy to use an executive order to end segregation.
The Civil Rights leader argued America was limiting its influence as a world power because while championing liberty and freedom, it kept a large percentage of its own population as “second-class citizens.”
Kennedy declined to issue a second Emancipation Proclamation. But he did introduce legislation that would become the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The Black Lives Matter movement and others remind us, however, that there are still barriers to true racial justice and equity.
It would be great if we could celebrate true equality in a Juneteenth commemoration. It’s just not clear how long it will take for us to reach that milestone.