Tuesday, April 12, 2022

What is Juneteenth?

The U.S. government declared “Juneteenth” a new federal holiday in 2021 to commemorate June 19, 1865 when Union forces ordered Confederate dead-enders on the remote western frontier in Texas to enforce the Emancipation Proclamation, i.e. the abolition of slavery in former slave states.

For symbolic meaning I would suggest that a far more important date in history would be April 9, 1865 when Gen. Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virgina surrendered at Appomattox, because that day changed the course of history as the clear “before vs. after” date that history pivots on. The Civil War was over — although it took several weeks for other generals of other state armies in the field to stop fighting, but that’s the nature of wars in the 19th century, well before Twitter.

That day ended 4 years of an ugly brutal war that split apart families, villages, regions and states with a level of red-hot violence and hatred that led directly to the assassination of President Lincoln just five days later. It was pivotal in American history — and in world history too. 

But it wasn’t really over, despite 600,000 war dead and a fractured society, because it took another 100 years to address the more intractable issue: institutionalized racism in the halls of power, especially the federal and southern state governments.

The list of ways that the U.S. Supreme Court in particular, along with the various southern state governments, dug in their heels against treating blacks like human beings is long, varied and painful to review, and even worse, stretches well over a century.

Three examples to illustrate the point.


Dred Scott vs Sandford in 1857 declared that all persons of African descent — not just slaves — are not entitled to any rights that citizens enjoy, by definition:

“… are not included, and were not intended to be included, under the word 'citizens' in the Constitution, and can therefore claim none of the rights and privileges which that instrument provides for and secures to citizens of the United States”

Well. Good to know. Here’s a good video explaining why the decision was so epically awful. 


The Reconstruction amendments (13th, 14th, and 15th) in the postwar years 1865-70, specifically the Citizenship Clause of the 14th, were intended to restate the founding principles of the country and overcome wrong-headed decisions like the above — but went unenforced and essentially ignored in southern states where they were needed the most. Who has Constitutional oversight to force states to comply with federal law? The Executive Branch of the federal government. But they did nothing, probably because there was in fact no real way to enforce federal law at that time.


Plessy vs Ferguson — settled in 1896, over 30 years after the end of the Civil War — could have put all that to rest but chose instead to enshrine the caste system of “separate but equal” as settled law. This single decision ratified the “Jim Crow laws” era and set the course for almost 70 more years of enforced segregation.

It was not until 1954 that segregation and “separate but equal” were finally recognized as illegal with “Brown vs. Board of Education” — but even that was not enough to pull the dead-enders forward into the 20th century, leading to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

So it took 100 more years after the war ended to accomplish what the Emancipation Proclamation set out to do.

Juneteenth as a holiday makes sense, perhaps, as a Texas day of remembrance — and was declared a state holiday for that purpose in 1980. 

But as a national holiday? 

The days we choose to memorialize as a culture become the stories we tell in the future, and it’s not really that I’m against telling the Juneteenth story as much as I’m wondering who’s going to tell the story about government denying rights to black people for another 100 years. That’s the story that needs telling.

For completeness here is the actual text of the order of June 19, 1865.

Head Quarters District of Texas
Galveston Texas June 19th 1865.
General Orders
No. 3.

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.

By order of Major General Granger