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June 30, 2022

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In Our View: Juneteenth is important to all Americans

The Columbian
Published:

On June 19, 1865, Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger led a force of soldiers to Galveston, Texas, to deliver a message: The Civil War was over, the Union had won, and the end of slavery would be enforced.

General Order No. 3 read, in part: “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 rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired laborer.”

The decree arrived 30 months after Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which was ignored by Confederate states because they considered themselves to be a separate nation. And it arrived two months after the formal end of the Civil War; news traveled more slowly in those days.

But the announcement in a Texas outpost is regarded as the moment when the end of slavery technically had reached all corners of the reunited United States. And it is what we recognize today with Juneteenth, which was signed into law as a federal holiday last year.

With June 19 falling on a Sunday this year, today is the observed holiday. Along with federal employees, at least 18 states (including Washington and Oregon) have official state holidays, and many private companies offer employees a paid day off.

As a state representative from Connecticut explained: “Juneteenth marks the date of major significance in American history. It represents the ways in which freedom for Black people have been delayed.”

While that significance is palpable for Black people, Juneteenth has meaning for all Americans. It is not embarrassing to inspect a nation’s past; it is informative. It is not shameful to remember the United States’ history of slavery; it is educational. It is not denigrating to examine how that history informs our modern institutions; it is uplifting, providing hope that we can take an honest look at ourselves and genuinely work to live up to the creed that all people are created equal.

Freedom for Black Americans often has been delayed, whether with the end of slavery in Texas or with poll taxes that suppressed minority votes or with redlining policies that limited the accumulation of wealth. Acknowledging that is not an indictment of today’s Americans; but if we are to ignore it, that is damning evidence that those in power do not desire to follow our nation’s professed ideals.

All of this has come under much-needed scrutiny in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement and the murder of George Floyd in 2020. And while many Americans will enjoy a day off today, businesses and governments should take the opportunity for reflection, rather than simply Juneteenth-themed marketing opportunities.

As Amara Enyia of the Movement for Black Lives told CNN: “What people are demanding is not a new ice cream flavor or a new salad or any other symbolic gesture that really is just about generating profit from a commercialized holiday. What Black folks have demanded are structural and systemic changes to the systems in this country that have been harmful and oppressive.”

That lends relevance to Juneteenth. While the holiday celebrates the official end of slavery in the United States, it is a living commemoration that calls for a questioning of modern race relations and calls for a reckoning with our past.

We, as a nation, will be better for it.

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