In the United States, African Americans (descendants of enslaved Black people) recognize and celebrate the end of slavery on June 19, or Juneteenth.
On this day in 1865, the last group of enslaved Black Americans in Texas learned about the Emancipation Proclamation that President Lincoln had signed in 1863 as part of the strategy to win the Civil War, and about the passage of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which legally ended slavery.
The Emancipation Proclamation was only an executive order. The 13th Amendment – passed by the Senate in April 1863, the House in January 1865, and ratified on December 5, 1865 – was the Constitutional mechanism that abolished slavery.
Truth be told, even if Black Americans in Texas had heard about Lincoln’s proclamation, they still could not be freed until Union troops were physically present in the territory to enforce these legal rights. The Civil War did not end everywhere at the same time; rather, it continued some two and a half months past Confederate General Lee’s surrender in 1865, until the last Confederate troops were notified. With the power of the government behind them, Union soldiers forced the enslavers to recognize the end of chattel slavery and to establish new legal working relationships as employers and employees.
The news of freedom gave Black Americans much more to celebrate. Chattel property was deemed illegal, and Blacks could own land and other property. With freedom written into the law, people could look forward to additional rights like Blacks’ marriages being legally recognized; the right to protect oneself and one’s family; the right of Blacks to become literate and educated; the right to worship; the right to profit from one’s own labor; and social, economic, and political empowerment.
President Lincoln often gets a lot of credit for ending slavery; he struggled throughout his political career as to how to do so, but his primary concern was to save the Union. Many Black Americans escaped enslavement during the Civil War and supported the Union troops because they saw this conflict as a path to their own liberation and achieving full emancipation. After signing the proclamation in 1863, Lincoln actively engaged with members of Congress to garner support for the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. Lincoln lived to see the Senate and House votes, but was assassinated before he could see the ratification.
For Black Americans, there was much optimism following the first Juneteenth because of Reconstruction (1865-1877). Most people do not fully understand the significance of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, nor do they realize the constant opposition of White supremacy.
The 13th Amendment abolished slavery in the United States. The 14th Amendment, for the first time, established citizenship rights and equal protection for former free Blacks and formerly enslaved people. The 15th Amendment enfranchised Black men by allowing them to vote and to hold public office.
Collectively, these were part of a legal and moral reckoning, Reconstruction, that compelled the nation to live up to the words of Thomas Jefferson “... 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."
These recollections of history paint a victorious picture of the years between the American Revolution and the Civil War when the nation grappled with an institution (slavery) that was antithetical to its Declaration of Independence.
But there is so much more to the story of America that we should explore to understand who we are and where we are today. American history is filled with difficulties. The price of America’s victories and achievements was paid in lost lives, Jim Crow laws, lynching, eugenics, race riots, and a Supreme Court ruling sanctioning separate but equal policy.
As difficult as this country’s history is, we must be mindful to learn the lessons of the past, strive for a better today, continue the fight for equality, and hope for a greater future. Juneteenth offers us a time to reflect on the challenge of resisting oppression, like when enslaved men, women, and children fled from enslavers to places like Fort Monroe, Virginia for their own liberation. It is a time to remember Black Americans who enlisted in the United States Colored Troops to fight for this country. It is a time to consider the problems we see around us now, like gun violence, securing our right to vote, policing, wealth and health disparities, and access to high-quality education.
The Juneteenth celebration has evolved since 1865. For these newly freed people, this was the first chance they had to reunite with family members separated by slavery. Imagine searching for a loved one, and all you had to go on was the memory of who your relative was sold to, or the last place they were traded. Imagine reuniting with a child who had been taken away from you as a punishment. This historic day brought with it the promise of family unity without the threat of further separation; a promise that Dr. Martin Luther King spoke about in August, 1963.
Over the last 156 years, June 19th celebrations have included family gatherings, reunions, and barbeques. This year, there are festivals in metropolitan areas, cook-outs and barbeques, and virtual music and religious events planned across 47 states.
Let’s celebrate this day and envision the next chapter of our American story.
Marie Bakari DBA, MSA, MBA
Associate Director of Faculty Development & Support in School of Business
Co-Chair, University Diversity Committee
Annabelle Goodwin, PhD, LMFT
Director of Equity and Inclusion / Faculty, SSBS
A note of thanks to Mr. Harvey Bakari and Mr. Benjamin Goodwin for their assistance with historical facts and perspectives.