Echoes of freedom: Commentary on Juneteenth and the power of legislation

Why We Wrote This

For many Black Americans, this Juneteenth is particularly bittersweet. Columnist Ken Makin explores the significance of this commemoration of freedom as both a celebration and a call to action.

Alexander Hay Ritchie/Francis Bicknell Carpenter/Library of Congress/Reuters
An illustration depicting the first reading of the Emancipation Proclamation before the cabinet of U.S. President Abraham Lincoln, in an engraving by Alexander Hay Ritchie and based on a painting by Francis Bicknell Carpenter, circa 1866.

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Many Americans believe the Emancipation Proclamation “freed the slaves.” However, when Abraham Lincoln issued the document on Sept. 22, 1862, there were notable exceptions.

Texas fell under Lincoln’s 1863 declaration of freedom. The echoes of that declaration wouldn’t be heard until 2,000 federal troops occupied Galveston, Texas, on June 18, 1865. The next day, Union Army Gen. Gordon Granger stood on the balcony of Galveston’s Ashton Villa and read “General Order No. 3,” proclaiming “all slaves are free.” June 19 is celebrated to this day as Juneteenth, a commemoration of the day that the last enslaved Black people in the United States were freed.

But, as we celebrate Juneteenth and other flashes of freedom as Black people, we cannot rest on our laurels. We wage a timeless war, with a timeline that goes from slavery to Reconstruction to the Jim Crow era to the war on drugs to the prison industrial complex to right now. It is a call to action that has been exclaimed and expressed from freedom fighters such as Muhammad Ali and Fannie Lou Hamer: “Nobody’s free until everybody’s free.”

It is ironic that, during this time of great social upheaval, people are paying more attention to Juneteenth, the commemoration of the June 19, 1865, freeing of enslaved Black people in Texas.

Juneteenth isn’t just a celebration of the pursuit of Black freedom and Black culture. It is also an indictment of law enforcement.

The Emancipation Proclamation was enacted on Jan. 1, 1863. Many Americans believe this document “freed the slaves.” However, when Abraham Lincoln issued the document on Sept. 22, 1862, there were a few exceptions:

Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana, (except the Parishes of St. Bernard, Plaquemines, Jefferson, St. John, St. Charles, St. James Ascension, Assumption, Terrebonne, Lafourche, St. Mary, St. Martin, and Orleans, including the City of New Orleans) Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Virginia, (except the forty-eight counties designated as West Virginia, and also the counties of Berkley, Accomac, Northampton, Elizabeth City, York, Princess Ann, and Norfolk, including the cities of Norfolk and Portsmouth[)], and which excepted parts, are for the present, left precisely as if this proclamation were not issued.

The proclamation also didn’t apply to Kentucky, Maryland, Delaware, Missouri, or Tennessee. Those states would not see a proclamation of “freedom” until Dec. 6, 1865, when the 13th Amendment was ratified.

As for Texas, it fell under Lincoln’s 1863 declaration of freedom. The echoes of that declaration wouldn’t be heard for nearly 30 months, until 2,000 federal troops occupied Galveston, Texas, on June 18, 1865. The next day, Union Army Gen. Gordon Granger stood on the balcony of Galveston’s Ashton Villa and read “General Order No. 3”:

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 personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.

This is not an unfamiliar dynamic in regards to racial and social justice in America. The ideals surrounding laws, and the implementation of those same laws, don’t always happen at the same time. Even when laws are implemented and executed, Black people have still remained in harm’s way. As sure as there are efforts to enforce law, there are efforts to erase law altogether.

Observe the 13th Amendment, which ideally abolished slavery “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” That loophole exercises itself to this day in the prison industrial complex. Even the notion of “freedmen” and wage labor clashes with presumably abolished slavery. Just last month, striking sanitation workers in New Orleans were replaced with prison labor – in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. Those workers, who only made $10.25 an hour at the time of their protest, demanded a wage hike to $15 due to labor conditions and their status as “essential workers.” It’s worth mentioning that New Orleans was not one of the cities freed by the Emancipation Proclamation.

Enactment and enforcement should be mutual partners – yet we can look at voting rights, segregation in schools, and countless other challenges to racism, sexism, and classism that turn mutual partners into distant companions.

And yet, there is a cause for celebration.

Juneteenth is a celebration of Black power and progress against the current of constant struggle. On the following June 19, in 1866, Black people in Texas and throughout the country celebrated the occasion like many Americans treat the Fourth of July.

There were cookouts, dances, and rodeos. There were invocations and inspirational messages. Formerly enslaved people recalled the horrors they experienced only years ago. There was a particularly notable commemoration in 1872, when four formerly enslaved men bought four acres of parkland in Houston with $800 (more than $15,000 today when adjusted for inflation). The area was named Emancipation Park. Its history is as powerful as it is painful. From 1922 to 1940, it was Houston’s sole park for Black people, due to racial segregation.

A testimony about the holiday from Felix Haywood, a former slave, can be found in the book “Lone Star Pasts: Memory and History in Texas”:

The end of the war, it come jus’ like that – like you snap your fingers. ... Hallelujah broke out. ... Soldiers, all of a sudden, was everywhere – comin’ in bunches, crossin’, walkin’ and ridin’. Everyone was a-singin.’ We was all walkin’ on golden clouds. ... Everybody went wild. ... We was free. Just like that we was free.

The feeling Haywood describes is fantastic, fiery, and filling. It is also fleeting. 

Racial, social, environmental, and economic disparities block the path to true freedom for Black folks. The “American dream” is a cruel tease. It is a form of trolling.

President Donald Trump is planning his own Juneteenth celebration. He is hosting a campaign rally on June 20 in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the site of the Tulsa Race Massacre. The rally was initially planned for June 19, but “out of respect,” the date was changed.

Katrina Pierson, President Trump’s campaign adviser, expressed that “as part of the party of Lincoln, Republicans are proud of the history of Juneteenth, which is the anniversary of the last reading of the Emancipation Proclamation.” That statement feels disingenuous. It conflates the Black Republican history of Reconstruction with the crass GOP politics of today. 

It is also a reminder that as much as we celebrate Juneteenth and other flashes of freedom as Black people, we cannot rest on our laurels. We wage a timeless war, with a timeline that goes from slavery to Reconstruction to the Jim Crow era to the war on drugs to the prison industrial complex to right now. It is a call to action that has been exclaimed and expressed from freedom fighters such as Muhammad Ali and Fannie Lou Hamer: “Nobody’s free until everybody’s free.”

Ken Makin is a freelance writer and the host of the “Makin’ A Difference” podcast. You can follow him on Twitter @differencemakin.

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