Juneteenth—Black Independence Day

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(NNPA)—“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 free laborer.”  General Order Number 3 as read by Major General Gordon Granger, Galveston, Texas, June 19, 1865.

In a few weeks, on July 4th, Americans will celebrate our national day of independence. But for African-Americans that day has always come with a tinge of bitter sweetness because on July 4, 1776, we were still slaves and far from free. It wasn’t until Jan. 1, 1863 when the Emancipation Proclamation took effect that America was officially a free nation. But even then there was not full compliance.

In the current age of tweeting and texting, it is hard to imagine that it took two-and-a-half years for word of Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation to reach the last group of remaining slaves in America. On June 19, 1865 Union soldiers, led by Major General Gordon Granger finally made it to Galveston, Texas, with news that the Civil War had ended and that the slaves of Texas were free. Several explanations have been offered as reasons for this delay—ranging from inadequate communications technology to a deliberate attempt to help plantation owners reap one last harvest by keeping their slaves in the dark. But when the news finally arrived, it was a day of great jubilation for 250,000 slaves in Texas.  June 19th has since become known as Juneteenth, a day when the descendants of slaves and slave owners can rejoice in America’s second Independence Day.

According to the website Juneteenth.com, the holiday, “celebrates African-American freedom and achievement, while encouraging continuous self-development and respect for all cultures.” This year marks the 145th anniversary of Juneteenth. It is now the oldest nationally celebrated commemoration of the ending of slavery in the United United. Celebrations featuring backyard barbecues, family gatherings and worship services, occur in most states. More than 30 states, led by Texas in 1980, have established Juneteenth as a holiday or special day of recognition.  In 1997, the United States Congress officially recognized “Juneteenth Independence Day” in America.

Interest in the celebration is growing. Reverend Ronald V. Meyers Sr., through the National Juneteenth Holiday Campaign, has been working for years to make it a national holiday. Last year, President Obama issued a White House statement on Juneteenth in which he said, “This moment also serves as a time for reflection and appreciation…African-Americans helped to build our nation brick by brick and have contributed to her growth in every way, even when rights and liberties were denied to them.”

I urge all Americans to observe Juneteenth, not only as a day of celebration, but as moment of appreciation, reconciliation and reaffirmation of the truth that none of us are free until all of us are free.

(Marc H. Morial is president and CEO of the National Urban League.)

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