It is entirely unfortunate that there has been any controversy over Juneteenth. It is very possible that, prior to this week, many Americans outside of Texas did not understand the significance of this celebration. I am overjoyed that this has finally become a day we can all recognize and celebrate together: a day that the prospect of freedom can be celebrated by all.
A Brief Summary of Juneteenth
Henry Louis Gates, in his article What Is Juneteenth?, provides an excellent breakdown of why June 19th should be the day to celebrate the liberation of slaves in the US over many other candidates. In it, he provides a clear explanation of every notable event on the road to freedom and why they are secondary to the significance of Juneteenth.
In 1865, the quickest form of communication was the telegraph. Lines of communication created a proto-internet across the Northern states and had begun to spread into the Midwest during the war. In the South, however, what few lines had been constructed were cut during the war by both sides for strategic purposes. So, with a 1400 mile gap between Texas and Washington DC, it is clear to see why news of the cessation of hostilities was delayed; with it, the news of freedom.
On June 19th, 1865, Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston Texas, the last state to receive the news of a Union victory, and issued the following order:
“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.”
-General Orders, Number 3
So June 19th was really a significant moment for the nearly 4 million enslaved people who knew nothing but captivity and stolen labor for their whole lives. While it was the day the good news had finally spread to the last rebellious state, it was not the day the final slave was freed, sadly. By June 19th, 1865, Delaware and Kentucky (both Union states) had yet to follow the oncoming tide of justice by liberating those who remained in bondage within their states. Does this tarnish the legacy of the Union? Certainly, but still Juneteenth was the dawn of hope for those who still lived without freedom. The days of slavery were ending and a new era in the US had begun.
Why So Controversial?
It is crucially important to note that prior to this year, there was no officially recognized federal holiday to commemorate the end of slavery in the United States. Furthermore, by 2017, 45 states and Washington D.C. officially recognized the holiday. (1) There was already a necessity for Juneteenth and a consensus among the states that it is an important day. Yet, this week was saw Washington do what it does best: destroy consensus among the American people.
It is easy in our current political climate to see the people we disagree with on important matters as being wrong in all things. While this may serve partisans well at the polls, it does not serve us well as a people. Juneteenth is a second independence day because it is a day America can celebrate its independence from that evil institution of slavery. We can celebrate that millions of enslaved people gained independence from their subjugation and became masters of their own destiny; fellow heirs to the promise of freedom. It is the day we can commemorate, not only the promise of freedom, but the delivery of that promise. Juneteenth does not take from July 4th, but rather it recognizes the fulfillment of the truth "that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."