A Reflection on Juneteenth from United Way of Central Alabama and How to Observe the Holiday

It’s one of the most important anniversaries in our nation’s history; but until last year, Juneteenth wasn’t recognized as a federal holiday. After 157 years, we now officially commemorate June 19th as the end of slavery in the United States and use it as a present-day reminder of Black freedom and achievement.

Didn’t the Emancipation Proclamation end slavery?

The rhyming order issued by President Abraham Lincoln declaring all enslaved people free existed only on paper. In practice, many slave owners in Confederate states didn’t inform their slaves about the proclamation and didn’t honor it.

Muddying the water even more, Lincoln’s order was really to preserve the Union, not to free slaves, as he famously wrote:

“My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or destroy Slavery…If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that. What I do about Slavery and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save this Union.”

The Emancipation Proclamation applied only to states that had seceded from the U.S., meaning slavery was still intact in loyal border states and those parts of the Confederacy that were under Northern control. Another important caveat in the proclamation is that freedom hinged upon Union victory, which was not achieved until April 1865.

The road to freedom stretches long

So, even though the Emancipation Proclamation became effective on January 1, 1863, two years would pass before Union troops arrived in these states to enforce it. On June 19, 1865, Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger informed the last Confederate state, Galveston, Texas, that President Lincoln had freed enslaved people in rebel states more than two years earlier. He read General Order No. 3 to slaves in the area, who were unaware of their freedom.

There were around 250,000 enslaved people when Granger arrived in Texas, and despite informing them of their freedom, they weren’t immediately freed. Slaves were attacked and killed by owners as they attempted to get free.

The timeline is long and ugly from the announcement of the Emancipation Proclamation until every slave was finally free. The U.S. government would still need to ratify the Thirteenth Amendment in December 1985, freeing slaves in Delaware and Kentucky. Juneteenth reminds us of this hard truth and emphasizes the need to never forget the battle toward a free society.

When did people begin recognizing Juneteenth?

Nearly two centuries before President Biden signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act into law, former slaves traveled annually to Galveston to honor Juneteenth. Of course, the order didn’t eliminate bigotry and racism; and as the tradition spread to other states, white people tried to stop Black people from honoring the day in public spaces.

According to NPR, in one case, Black community leaders in Houston saved $1,000 to purchase 10 acres of land to host Juneteenth observations. They named it Emancipation Park, and groups commemorate the anniversary there today.

Popularity of Juneteenth rose and fell throughout the last century and a half, but 2020 was a tipping point for renewed action following nationwide protests over police brutality and the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and other Black Americans. Although Black communities have honored the holiday since 1865, activism sparked by these events allowed space for Juneteenth to resurface with a galvanized force.

How do we observe Juneteenth today?

Since Black Americans weren’t considered people on July 4, 1776, activists have called to recognize Juneteenth as not the “other” Independence Day, but as the Independence Day. While it’s encouraging to have Juneteenth recognized as a national holiday to bring more awareness and education to the public, we must go beyond symbolic gestures and work for real progress.

As we all reflect on Juneteenth this Sunday, let us also commit to challenging ourselves to build a truly equitable society, starting with our own day-to-day actions in our own community. We can have a better future together while deconstructing the harm caused by structural racism.

If you’re looking to commemorate Juneteenth and support the Black community this year, here are a few ideas:

  • Educate

There is an abundance of free resources available detailing the history and significance of Juneteenth for the Black community. Start with this website to learn more about the holiday’s origins.

For media, check out these books blog that explore racial justice, the “1619” podcast examining American slavery or watch “Juneteenth Jamboree,” a show from PBS illuminating the significance of the Juneteenth holiday.

  • Support

Black-owned businesses were disproportionally affected by the pandemic and could use your help on the road to recovery. By shopping at a Black-owned business, you are part of a direct and sustainable way to support the Black community. Here are 15 directories to find Black-owned businesses near your area.

  • Advocate

Join a rally with a local organization or participate in a local event honoring Juneteenth.

We recognize structural racism and other forms of oppression contribute to persistent disparities which United Way of Central Alabama seeks to break down. This is why we celebrate Juneteenth at United Way. Our office will be closed on June 20th, and we invite you to Live United with us in the continued fight against inequity in our community.