Late last week Juneteenth, the day slaves in Galveston, Texas, were told they were free, became a federal holiday. President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, ending slavery in the Confederate States. Union General Gordon Granger effectively ended slavery in Texas when he arrived in Galveston on June 19, 1865, to enforce General Order No. 3. The order transmitted the news of the Emancipation Proclamation. Granger showed up a little more than two months after General Robert E. Lee surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House in Virginia, officially ending the Civil War.
Many people say Juneteenth is the effective end of slavery in America. The truth is that the 13th Amendment ending slavery nationwide was not ratified until December 6, 1865. Until then, states that did not secede from the Union were not subject to the Emancipation Proclamation, and the institution persisted. America genuinely eradicated slavery following new treaties with the tribes in the Indian territories signed on June 14, 1866, nearly a year after Gordon reached Texas.
Many elements above are new information to me. Texas made Juneteenth a state holiday in 1980. I grew up in the Northeast, and our history curriculum was heavily biased towards the history of the Union. Before the internet, I knew as much about what happened in Texas during the Civil War as I did about the history of California missions. My guess is most Americans don’t know much about Pioneer Day in Utah. Or that Savannah, Georgia, designates St. Patrick’s Day as a holiday. Or the history of why residents observe either custom. I do, having lived in both locations.
For many Americans, history is a function of the region you live in. In any case, the end of slavery in the United States and a years-long Civil War that cost an estimated 600,000 lives is absolutely a milestone worth celebrating. Americans fought the Civil War to end chattel slavery and preserve the union. However, the road to true unification and equality under the law was much longer. It took generations from Reconstruction through the civil-rights movement.
The 13th Amendment established freedom in the 19th century. The remaining debt was equality under the law. In the 20th century, it was deemed no longer permissible to judge people by their immutable characteristics. We celebrate Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday to remember the most consequential civil rights leader, whose vision America embraced in the 1964 Civil Rights Act. We were able to work out the cultural implications of that bargain in the ’70s through comedy such as that of Richard Pryor, groundbreaking television shows including All in the Family, and movies such as Blazing Saddles.
Juneteenth is the date selected to celebrate the first step to paying the promissory note provided in our founding documents to all men and women. It is as good as any of the individual milestones or steps along the way to finally ending slavery. In the 21st century, however, our culture is too degraded to have the conversations we require to incorporate more robust teaching of this historical period in an age-appropriate way into the school curriculum.
For example, graphic teaching of the Tulsa massacre is not appropriate for young children. Perhaps it is suitable in high school as part of an American history curriculum. However, equally important are numerous examples of former slaves and their descendants creating educational institutions, transportation systems, and economic success in segregated communities. As civil rights activist and founder of The Woodson Center Bob Woodson said recently, “When America was at its worst, we were at our best.” This empowering and inspirational content can not be left out if the goal is to tell the complete story.
However, our culture will not even allow nuanced discussions like this. Instead, the recognition of Juneteenth is being used as a cudgel to push other progressive priorities by the usual subjects. Never content with achieving a milestone, leftists like Congresswomen Ilhan Omar and Cori Bush keep pushing:
Proud #Juneteenth is now a federal holiday.
As we reflect on the significance of what this day symbolizes, let’s keep fighting to address the lasting consequences of slavery.
Next step: reparations.
— Rep. Ilhan Omar (@Ilhan) June 19, 2021
It’s Juneteenth AND reparations.
It’s Juneteenth AND end police violence + the War on Drugs.
It’s Juneteenth AND end housing + education apartheid.
It’s Juneteenth AND teach the truth about white supremacy in our country.
Black liberation in its totality must be prioritized.
— Cori Bush (@CoriBush) June 17, 2021
Actually, it is just Juneteenth, a new holiday that is part of the chain of events that fulfilled our founding ideals. The ideals that enabled Omar to go from refugee child to member of Congress in less than a generation. America will not expand this promise by teaching the divisive intersectional identitarianism advocated by Bush. Do we still have legitimate issues that need to be addressed in society? Of course. Are they best solved by federal legislation designed to throw more money at them? Not if history, including the history of freed slaves and their direct descendants, is a guide.
Perhaps Omar and Bush need to take a clue from the designers of the Juneteenth flag, which debuted in 1997:
The Juneteenth flag was created in 1997 by activist Ben Haith, also known as Boston Ben, who also founded the National Juneteenth Celebration Foundation (NJCF). Haith created the flag in collaboration with Verlene Hines, Azim and Eliot Des to solidify the holiday in the minds of all Americans and to serve as an undying symbol of liberty and freedom for African Americans.
The flag’s colors — red, white and blue — were deliberately chosen by Haith to demonstrate that even throughout enslavement, African Americans were always American. And its design is just as symbolic.
Juneteenth should be a celebration for all Americans. There is not a single citizen who should not be proud that General Granger arrived in Galveston that day to take a monumental step in fulfilling the founding promise of freedom. Just as we should all remember Dr. King for insisting on the promise of equality. In celebrating them both, we should be looking forward to a more free and equal society.
The radical left prefers to look backward, to highlight only our failings as a nation and none of our progress.