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home : opinion : opinion August 13, 2020

6/19/2020 9:17:00 AM
What Is Juneteenth?

Wayne Howard
Staff Writer

Today (Friday June 19th) is Juneteenth (short for “June Nineteenth”). It is the anniversay of the day when federal troops arrived in Galveston, Texas in 1865 to take control of the state and ensure that all enslaved people be freed.

It had been six months since the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution made slavery illegal in most of the US. I say 'most' because slavery of black Americans still existed on some Native American reservations, protected as part of treaties that created those reservations. Slaves there didn't all get freed until at least two years later, and even then, similar to sharecropping and the Jim Crow era in the South, freedom wasn't full freedom. Many of the black former slaves were denied tribal citizenship and became servants and hired hands for their former Native American owners. They were often arrested and imprisoned, then 'sold' for labor to white farmers.

Many erroneously give President Abraham Lincoln credit for freeing the slaves. On September 22, 1862, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which declared that as of January 1, 1863, all enslaved people in the states then engaged in rebellion against the Union would be free. Emancipation would change the focus of the Civil War, turning it from a struggle to preserve the Union to a quest to end slavery. Lincoln was not an abolitionist. Had the southern states not seceded from the Union, slavery might well have lasted many more years.

In 1865, newspapers were the major source of news in cities, but in the rural parts of America (and the former Confederacy), many only saw a newspaper rarely--and illiteracy was rampant. That's why it was necessary for General Gordon Granger to be sent to Texas--to inform the people there, both the former slaves and former slave owners, that slavery had been outlawed by an amendment to the US Constitution...and also to take charge of the state on behalf of the US Army.

Lincoln had been assassinated in April and Andrew Johnson had become President. Johnson envisioned Reconstruction as a restoration of much of what had been the former Confederacy minus slavery. He was a vocal opponent of the Fourteenth Amendment, passed in 1868, which gave former slaves citizenship. Johnson, born in North Carolina and pre-War elected Governor and to Congress from Tennessee, did much toward returning the old leaders from the days of the Confederacy to power and restricting the rights of blacks. He was eventually impeached but his impeachment fell short of confirmation by one vote in the US Senate. He lost the 1868 election to Ulysses Grant and later served as a Senator from Tennessee, the only US President ever to be elected to Congress after leaving the Presidency.

While Juneteenth didn't actually free anyone--it did confirm the freedom of blacks in Texas, some of whom had still been held as slaves even after the war ended and the 13th Amendment was adopted; but it did have a symbolic importance that has since grown. The day became a celebration not only in Texas but by African-Americans all across the country. In 1980, it was declared a Texas state holiday, and there is a move to try to make it a national holiday.

The recent protests and riots and the flaws in our criminal justice system that have provoked them are a reminder that the Civil Rights battle is not yet over. Juneteenth is an appropriate time for those who agree that much more needs to be done to recommit ourselves to the struggle.

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