Editor's note: This blog was originally published on June 18, 2015.
The other night during story time with my preschooler, I read Floyd Cooper's Juneteenth for Mazie. The book is a bit too advanced for a 3-year-old, but she was fascinated by the illustrations nonetheless. Reading this book got me thinking about Juneteenth and what I learned about it, including when I learned about it: It wasn’t in school. How fantastic that there are books on the subject out there for young readers—but what about the kids whose parents aren’t choosing those books?
I have found that many people, including many adults, don't know about Juneteenth at all. The name combines the words June and nineteenth, the day in 1865 when enslaved Texans in Galveston were informed that slavery was over. This anniversary is celebrated in many communities across the United States, but clearly this day deserves more attention. The emancipation story most people in the United States learn centers around President Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, which only freed enslaved people as Union troops occupied parts of the South later in the Civil War. (Constitutionally speaking, the 13th Amendment abolished slavery.) Learning the history of Juneteenth can help illustrate the complexity of this time in our history.
On that summer day in 1865—a full two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation and over two months after General Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox—Major General Gordon Granger, commander of the U.S. Army’s Department of Texas, delivered the news to perhaps the very last enslaved people to learn they were free. After reading from General Order Number 3 that “all slaves are free,” Major General Granger continued, “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.”
Absolute equality. While a few million enslaved folks had learned at various times over the previous couple of years that they were free—and no doubt rejoiced at the news—this day was different. As the last to learn of their absolute equality with their former masters, these enslaved men, women and children were major characters in the end of one story filled with longstanding oppression and the beginning of a powerful new story filled with the hope for equality. This watershed moment, between the two stories, has been missing from our collective understanding of this country’s history and presents a fuller picture of freedom. It’s no wonder that these newly freed people met the announcement with cheers, shouts and celebrations—celebrations that have continued every year since.
Yet, as we all know, the promise of absolute equality was not realized with emancipation and remains elusive; oppression lingers in many of our institutions. But Juneteenth was and still is worthy of celebration and remembrance. Through children’s books, through the annual celebrations that began with formerly enslaved Texans and through our classroom teaching, we should all have Juneteenth on our radar. It should be part of our collective knowledge of freedom struggles in this country so that today’s youth can continue the fight to ensure that the promise of absolute equality is realized.
Bell is a writer and associate editor for Teaching Tolerance.