Juneteenth: A Day To Celebrate Freedom

It seems to me, in light of the horrific massacre at Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, it is even more compelling to reflect upon our nation’s past, both the bad and the good, the noble and the infamous. Today it is fitting to recall the great gain of the expansion of freedom which grew from the great horror of war.

On this date in 1865, a Monday exactly a century and a half ago today, Major General Gordon Granger of the United States Army, landed at Galveston, Texas and proclaimed that the Emancipation Proclamation of two and a half years earlier was thereafter in effect in the Department of Texas. Granger posted notice, by broadsheet and by cryer, that the slaves in Texas were thenceforth and forevermore free, that the relationship between them and their former masters would be one of “absolute equality,” and that former masters were to become employers while former slaves were free labor.

Accounts differ about the immediate impact; there may or may not have been dancing in the streets and spontaneous revelry that particular day in 1865, though it seems likely. But quite quickly in the years that followed, June 19th, contracted into the euphonious “Juneteenth”, became a day of celebration, feasting, rejoicing and prayer throughout Texas.

By the early 20th century, Juneteenth observances had become less common as the generation who had been present in 1865 faded away. But in the 1950’s and 1960’s, in the midst of the Civil Rights movement, interest in Juneteenth revived. Today some of the largest Juneteenth celebrations are held far from Texas, in California, Minnesota, and Wisconsin! Juneteenth celebrations mark a recognition of the vast difference between a legal status, as when the slaves were theoretically freed in 1863, and a real status, as when Union troops arrived in Texas with the news.

I think that Juneteenth is really an appropriate day for all Americans to take note; freedom is truly meant for all people, and it cannot mean much to a free people if they permit or engage in the enslavement of other people. And while I cannot properly condemn the past — the past is, as L.P. Hartley observed, “A foreign country; they do things differently there” — I can rejoice that we have grown away from some of the obvious wrongs of the past, at least to a meaningful degree. Yet as recent horrible events have shown, there is so much work to be done. The most corrosive legacy of institutionalized slavery, racism, remains with us still in various forms and degrees, and it still erupts in violent and deadly ways. Yes, we have much work ahead of us. It is not only right that we undertake the effort to fully achieve a world beyond racism, it is necessary.

Of course freedom takes work. I suspect that freedom will always be like a precious fruit tree, always in need of care and tending, and it can never be taken for granted.

Therefore, on Juneteenth 2015, as we mourn those brutally and senselessly killed in Charleston, South Carolina, take a moment to be grateful for the freedoms we have, and remember they must never be taken for granted. Let us all commit to continue to strive, actively and aggressively, for an end to racism in every form. But we should also consider the unspeakable joy that must have been in the hearts of those slaves who heard the glorious news that fine June day so long ago, “You are free!”

Jamie Rawson
Flower Mound, Texas

Free at last, free at last
I thank God I’m free at last
Free at last, free at last
I thank God I’m free at last

Free At Last, an old Negro Spiritual

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