A Closer Look at Juneteenth and the Legacy of Jim Crow
On June 16, 2021, the U.S. Congress passed legislation to make Juneteenth (June 19) a federal holiday. The signing of this legislation is a nod that speaks to the Biden/Harris administration’s commitment to address the racial tensions that festered throughout the previous administration and American history. But rather than celebrate, we should all take a closer look at the history and legacy that this holiday represents: one of lies, intentional suppression of Black Freedom, and a rewriting of history to suit those in power.
Band Celebrating Juneteenth in Texas, 1900
Juneteenth's commemoration is on the anniversary date of the June 19, 1865 announcement by the Union Army proclaiming and enforcing freedom of enslaved people in Texas, the last state of the Confederacy with institutional slavery. When you peel back the layers of the true roots of this holiday, rather than a federal day to reaffirm and celebrate the freedom of Black people, it simply underscores the national government’s inability and failure at the time to enforce its own decree.
President Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation of 1862 had officially outlawed slavery in Texas and in all of the other states of the original Confederacy. However, slave owners in Texas and many other not Southern then-border states such as Delaware and Kentucky showed no signs of, or desire to, voluntarily end the practice of slavery. Ending slavery would have been to their economic detriment. The outcome: thousands of free Black Americans continued to be held as the property of other Americans; they continued to be sold, shackled, beaten, whipped, raped, and made to endure treatment far worse than that of chattel - all because the knowledge of their legal free status was withheld from them.
Juneteeth became a day that these freed, former-slaves in Texas would commemorate their eventual legal release from slavery. This new federal holiday now stands as a reminder of America’s ongoing pattern of rewriting history in support of maintaining a true land of freedom, liberty, and justice for all. The reality is that Black Americans, along with other indigenous and immigrant residents of this country, still have neither of those in equal measure.
This is not by accident. One of the outgrowths of systemic slavery was that ‘freedmen’ had developed generational skill and expertise in the trades and future businesses that kept plantations financially viable and that would drive the Southern economy: farming, construction, engineering, metalsmithing, and manufacturing. During slavery, they had also developed skills in personal and professional services that they provided to their captors and to one another, out of either force or necessity (culinary arts, cleaning, hospitality, childcare, etc.) Not only did Southern whites take a heavy economic blow of having to now pay for the labor, they knew that former slaves also left with the knowledge and expertise to develop their own thriving value chain and economies. What happened to Black America from that point forward was driven, not by fear of physical retaliation from former slaves, but out of white fear of the potential of Black economic mobility.