Understanding Juneteenth

Today is Juneteenth, and I would like to start with a few words from President Barack Obama …

Obama“Juneteenth has never been a celebration of victory, or an acceptance of the way things are. It’s a celebration of progress. It’s an affirmation that despite the most painful parts of our history, change is possible––and there is still so much work to do.”

I planned to write a piece about Juneteenth, but I found that it had already been done, much better and much more authentically than I could possibly have done it, by Jamelle Bouie, an opinion columnist for the New York Times, and former chief political correspondent for Slate magazine.

Why Juneteenth Matters

It was black Americans who delivered on Lincoln’s promise of “a new birth of freedom.”

jamelle-bouieBy Jamelle Bouie

Opinion Columnist

Neither Abraham Lincoln nor the Republican Party freed the slaves. They helped set freedom in motion and eventually codified it into law with the 13th Amendment, but they were not themselves responsible for the end of slavery. They were not the ones who brought about its final destruction.

Who freed the slaves? The slaves freed the slaves.

“Slave resistance,” as the historian Manisha Sinha points out in “The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition,” “lay at the heart of the abolition movement.”

“Prominent slave revolts marked the turn toward immediate abolition,” Sinha writes, and “fugitive slaves united all factions of the movement and led the abolitionists to justify revolutionary resistance to slavery.”

When secession turned to war, it was enslaved people who turned a narrow conflict over union into a revolutionary war for freedom. “From the first guns at Sumter, the strongest advocates of emancipation were the slaves themselves,” the historian Ira Berlin wrote in 1992. “Lacking political standing or public voice, forbidden access to the weapons of war, slaves tossed aside the grand pronouncements of Lincoln and other Union leaders that the sectional conflict was only a war for national unity and moved directly to put their own freedom — and that of their posterity — atop the national agenda.”

All of this is apropos of Juneteenth, which commemorates June 19, 1865, when Gen. Gordon Granger entered Galveston, Texas, to lead the Union occupation force and delivered the news of the Emancipation Proclamation to enslaved people in the region. This holiday, which only became a nationwide celebration (among black Americans) in the 20th century, has grown in stature over the last decade as a result of key anniversaries (2011 to 2015 was the sesquicentennial of the Civil War), trends in public opinion (the growing racial liberalism of left-leaning whites), and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Over the last week, as Americans continued to protest police brutality, institutional racism and structural disadvantage in cities and towns across the country, elected officials in New York and Virginia have announced plans to make Juneteenth a paid holiday, as have a number of prominent businesses like Nike, Twitter and the NFL.

There’s obviously a certain opportunism here, an attempt to respond to the moment and win favorable coverage, with as little sacrifice as possible. (Paid holidays, while nice, are a grossly inadequate response to calls for justice and equality.) But if Americans are going to mark and celebrate Juneteenth, then they should do so with the knowledge and awareness of the agency of enslaved people.


Credit…David J. Phillip/Associated Press

Emancipation wasn’t a gift bestowed on the slaves; it was something they took for themselves, the culmination of their long struggle for freedom, which began as soon as chattel slavery was established in the 17th century, and gained even greater steam with the Revolution and the birth of a country committed, at least rhetorically, to freedom and equality. In fighting that struggle, black Americans would open up new vistas of democratic possibility for the entire country.

To return to Ira Berlin — who tackled this subject in “The Long Emancipation: The Demise of Slavery in the United States” — it is useful to look at the end of slavery as “a near-century-long process” rather than “the work of a moment, even if that moment was a great civil war.” Those in bondage were part of this process at every step of the way, from resistance and rebellion to escape, which gave them the chance, as free blacks, to weigh directly on the politics of slavery. “They gave the slaves’ oppositional activities a political form,” Berlin writes, “denying the masters’ claim that malingering and tool breaking were reflections of African idiocy and indolence, that sabotage represented the mindless thrashings of a primitive people, and that outsiders were the ones who always inspired conspiracies and insurrections.”

By pushing the question of emancipation into public view, black Americans raised the issue of their “status in freedom” and therefore “the question of citizenship and its attributes.” And as the historian Martha Jones details in “Birthright Citizens: A History of Race and Rights in Antebellum America,” it is black advocacy that ultimately shapes the nation’s understanding of what it means to be an American citizen. “Never just objects of judicial, legislative, or antislavery thought,” black Americans “drove lawmakers to refine their thinking about citizenship. On the necessity of debating birthright citizenship, black Americans forced the issue.”

After the Civil War, black Americans — free and freed — would work to realize the promise of emancipation, and to make the South a true democracy. They abolished property qualifications for voting and officeholding, instituted universal manhood suffrage, opened the region’s first public schools and made them available to all children. They stood against racial distinctions and discrimination in public life and sought assistance for the poor and disadvantaged. Just a few years removed from degradation and social death, these millions, wrote W.E.B. Du Bois in “Black Reconstruction in America, “took decisive and encouraging steps toward the widening and strengthening of human democracy.”

Juneteenth may mark just one moment in the struggle for emancipation, but the holiday gives us an occasion to reflect on the profound contributions of enslaved black Americans to the cause of human freedom. It gives us another way to recognize the central place of slavery and its demise in our national story. And it gives us an opportunity to remember that American democracy has more authors than the shrewd lawyers and erudite farmer-philosophers of the Revolution, that our experiment in liberty owes as much to the men and women who toiled in bondage as it does to anyone else in this nation’s history.

26 thoughts on “Understanding Juneteenth

  1. Thank you for sharing this post, Jill: I’d not realized that tool-breaking was called ‘stupidity’ by slave holders, rather than recognized as sabotage (of course slaves always have to ‘play dumb’ to keep themselves and their kids safe, so it makes sense, actually…): ReBlogging next year…

    Liked by 1 person

    • It was my pleasure! Too many people have no idea what Juneteenth is all about, and lately it seems that there is a push to whitewash our history, or at least parts of it. That cannot happen, for when we forget the lessons of history, we are doomed to make the same mistakes. I’m glad you found something of value in the post and I’ll be thrilled if you reblog it next year! Thank you!!!


  2. It is heartening to see that steps are being taken in the aftermath of the murder in Minnesota. Now let’s hope the steps continue to be taken in the right direction. It would help if there were direction from the top, but that’s not going to happen. But others are stepping forward and that is a good thing.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think … I hope … that is happening all over the country and that this time the movement won’t just be forgotten. Yes, it would be helpful if there were direction from the top, but it’s unlikely. I think there is a long road ahead, but hopefully we make progress each step of the way.


  3. Thanks for sharing that enlightening piece, Jill. Thanks to you I am learning a lot about American History. And. along the way, re-evaluating my understanding of British and European history.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank YOU, Frank! It is comments like this that keep me doing what I do! You’ve made my day brighter. Interestingly, I find that you guys on the other side of the pond have a much … MUCH … better understanding of U.S. history than we do ourselves. Here, the schools focus on memorizing facts, rather than teaching why and how things came about. I’ve always been fascinated by history, so I do my own digging for the answers to the ‘why’ question, but far too many don’t bother.


  4. Jill, well done. I like former President Obama’s comment about progress. Yet, with this progress, it also is saddened by the beginning of the Jim Crow era less than twenty years later. Slaves were replaced by prison labor consisting almost entirely of blacks, many unjustly arrested. Then, came the military style actions, beatings, hangings, denigrations, etc. of blacks. We have learned of what happened in Tulsa, but that type of action happened elsewhere. Look up Wilmington, NC around the late 1800s.

    Thanks for sharing. Keith

    Liked by 2 people

  5. To “GIFT” emancipation to the enslaved is to still retain power over them. To have them take their freedom away from the slave owners is to earn the respect of those who had no respect. Yet the whites continue to say they gave us our freedom. Keeping my ancestors on reserves and reservation has not yet truly freed them. When will we rise up and demand freedom? Until that happens no human in North America can truly be free. Our world has a long way to go. We have to take the first steps.

    Liked by 4 people

  6. (Paid holidays, while nice, are a grossly inadequate response to calls for justice and equality.)

    They’re far worse than that: they’re a deliberate distraction from the real need to address inequality.

    Liked by 3 people

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