Reflections on Juneteenth

Joe Biden has signed a bill establishing June 19 as a federal holiday. It is a development that, properly understood, is a salutary one. 

“Juneteenth” is a quintessential kind of American holiday with links to the Declaration of Independence and the Emancipation Proclamation. Originally, it was a spontaneous celebration by recently enslaved people in Texas reacting to the news they had been freed some two years earlier by the Emancipation Proclamation. These people didn’t need the permission of the federal government to express their joy. That is what made—and makes—Juneteenth special.

I am willing to wager that until last year, few Americans, black or white, had heard of Juneteenth until it became an issue when then-President Trump scheduled a political rally on June 19, 2020. That’s because Juneteenth had been largely a Texas thing. Over the years, it spread to other parts of the old Confederacy and beyond but it was never considered a central event in the struggle for black civil rights.

Indeed, there are perhaps better events to commemorate in that struggle—for instance January 1, 1863, when Lincoln issued the final Emancipation Proclamation, or December 6, 1865, when the 13th Amendment was ratified. Juneteenth was just about letting people know they were free. And even after Juneteenth, slavery was still in effect in two states, Kentucky and Biden’s home state of Delaware. As slave states that remained in the Union, their slaves were not covered by the Emancipation Proclamation, which affected only slaves in the states then in rebellion. Those other slaves did not become legally free until ratification of the 13th Amendment.

Some claim that the reason so few Americans have heard of Juneteenth is that racist whites wanted it covered up. But that’s not true. I knew about Juneteenth when I was in elementary school in the 1950s, but that is because of my Texas roots. Here’s a personal Juneteenth story.

I was born in Bryan, Texas (now Bryan-College Station), but because my dad was a Marine, I grew up in Southern California. During the second half of the 1950s, however, I would spend a portion of each summer visiting my grandmother in Bryan. Of course, Texas was still legally segregated during those years.

During those visits, I got to know my grandmother’s cook and housekeeper. Sometimes, she would bring her young daughter with her. Although she was a few years younger than me, we would do what kids always do when they get together. When I was nine or 10, the housekeeper told me about a get-together that she was helping to put on with her neighbors featuring lots of food and music. That was when I first heard about Juneteenth. When I expressed interest, she invited me to come with her. My grandmother allowed me to go.

It was quite an event. The food was great. I’m sure I was a source of amusement for the many African American attendees. But I was made to feel at home.

As I learned the history of Juneteenth, I came to appreciate its spirit as reflected by the joy of the revelers on that June 19 of 1954 or 1955. And that’s why I have no problem with making Juneteenth a federal holiday.

The problem of course is that Juneteenth, like just about everything these days, will become weaponized for partisan purposes. When that yankee from New York, Donald Trump, who had never heard of Juneteenth, proposed making it a federal holiday in September 2020, his opponents accused him of pandering to blacks. Of course, critics of Joe Biden, he of the last slave state in the Union, make the same charge. And I hope we avoid the idea that Juneteenth is an alternative independence day for African Americans. Let’s celebrate it for what it is: a joyful date commemorating an event in the spirit of the biblical jubilee.

 

About Mackubin Owens

Mackubin Thomas Owens is a retired Marine, professor, and editor who lives in Newport, RI.

Photo: Photo by Paras Griffin/Getty Images

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