On June 19, 1865, in Galveston, Texas, more than two years after President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation and six months after the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment outlawing slavery, Union Troops seized control of the area and declared all slaves free.
Since then, “Juneteenth” has been observed in Texas and in many places as Emancipation Day and the end of slavery in the United States because many of those enslaved had not yet received the news of President Lincoln’s January 1, 1863, Emancipation Proclamation.
The news surrounding the Emancipation Proclamation and the end of slavery reached different regions at different times. While many commemorate this occasion on June 19, in areas such as Russell County, Alabama, the date marking the end of slavery is May 28, and as such, locals have established May 28 as a community holiday to celebrate the day of freedom.
For many of the enslaved, in communities across the south, this news was purposefully kept from them – denying them the freedom and rights they were due. It is a dark legacy we see repeating itself today which reminds us that freedom and rights – even that most fundamental right to vote – are precious and precarious.
It has been a long and continuing march towards equality and justice. So long as slavery existed and persisted, our country could never truly live up to its founding ideals of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” The great strides made by courageous pioneers such as William Lloyd Garrison, Theodore Parker, John Greenleaf Whittier, James Russell Lowell, William Wells Brown, and Frederick Douglas were among the early steps to realize those ideals in America.
Through Reconstruction, a Civil Rights Movement nearly 100 years later, and up through current efforts to eliminate the residual effects of slavery on the descendants of former slaves, the fight continues into this century. Every step forward seems to have been met with opposition – too often violent opposition – against recognition that “all men are created equal”. The words of Frederick Douglas ring true today that “freedom is a constant struggle”.
As we remember the struggles and successes of the past, we must use this occasion to renew our efforts to wipe out the vestiges of slavery that still remain.
Juneteenth is not only a reminder of the end of an odious era in our nation’s history, but a reminder of the work that still needs to be done before we can truly celebrate freedom.
My full statement and the supporting congressional statements for S.475, the Juneteenth National Indepdence Day Act, can be found here.