I grew up in middle America in the 1950’s. American history during those days was taught through the lens of anti-Communism and had our country still growing into the role of being the “leader of the free world”.

There was little in the text books about anything that might suggest that the United States of America had ever acted out of malice or harbored ill-will toward others. We were, after all, the guiding light of democracy.

Americans and Their Holidays

I just assumed that holidays like Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, and Flag Day were shared by all and represented the historical benchmarks of the United States. Of course, there were ethnic holidays like St. Patrick’s Day, religious holidays like Christmas, and civic holidays like Washington’s and Lincoln’s birthdays, which I also assumed were shared by all.

This assumption was based on my lived and unquestioned experience of homogeneity. While I was aware of other religions, I knew only a few Jews, and didn’t know any Hindus, or Muslims. In my corner of the world, I rarely encountered persons of color in any roles other than sidekicks like Tonto on the Lone Ranger or Kato on the Green Hornet or in service jobs.

The Lived History and the Learned History

I had a passing knowledge of Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation, but that was just a bullet point in a text book and a required answer for the SATs. I had been taught that slavery ended after the Civil War, but other than that fact, I had no idea that the people marching on Washington D.C. in 1963 had been making the same plea for almost 100 years then; a promise yet to be fulfilled even in 2023.

I learned just how different my experience was as we entered the 1960s. This era saw the stark transition of our country from the glitz and glamour of the Kennedy’s and Camelot, to the chaos and confrontation of racism. Teach-ins and Be-ins opened new discourse on what our nation’s history actually was comprised of. The façade of equality was ripped away and I began to read about and learn alternative narratives that made me uncomfortable.

Even though I lived through the Civil Rights Movement and can recall specific events such as the assassination of Martin Luther King, the riots in Watts, Detroit, and Chicago, I didn’t have enough understanding of U.S. history to put these events into context. What was missing were narratives from Black Americans.

June 19, 1865. Galveston, Texas

Today, Galveston is a resort town with a rich, multi-cultural history that includes occupation and development by Spaniards, the French, and Mexicans. It was home to many emancipated African Americans both before and after the Civil War. For a moment in history, it was also the capital of the Republic of Texas and home to the Texas Navy.

It sits on the Gulf Coast, vulnerable to the whims of Mother Nature and human greed. It has been wiped out by hurricanes more than once. It has experienced environmental disasters from the oil tankers that use its port and from the refineries that move that oil across the country.

In 1865, it was the place where General Order No. 3 was read by Major General Gordon Granger:

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 rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection therefore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired laborer.

Celebrating Emancipation

On June 19, 1865, 250,000 Blacks in Texas were appraised of their new status as free men. The word spread, and celebrations began. For decades, Juneteenth was a “local” holiday, celebrated primarily in Texas and solely by Blacks.

Like other celebrations, it was an opportunity to come together, eat some great food, share some tall tales (after all this was Texas!), and deepen community bonds. Depending on the community, there may have been parades, speeches, music and dance, but always there was the coming together.

While this was a joyful happy moment for some, it was, as historian Annette Gordon-Reed writes in her book, “On Juneteenth”, not so for others:

Whites in Texas were incensed by what had transpired, so much so that some reacted violently to Blacks’ displays of joy at emancipation. In one town, dozens of newly freed enslaved people were whipped for celebrating. All over the South, but in Texas particularly, Whites unleashed a torrent of violence against the freed men and women—and sometimes, the whites who supported them – that lasted for years.

(On Juneteenth, p. 121)

Acknowledging the Underlying Tensions and Seeking Shared Values

Annette Gordon-Reed and I are contemporaries. If we had gone to the same high school, I would have been a senior when she was a freshman. Together we lived through events in the history of this country, but experienced those events in markedly different ways. She grew up celebrating Juneteenth. But until a few years ago, I had never heard of it. Why?

Even as historians today put forward well-researched and documented evidence of the many contributions made by African-Americans and other people of color in the founding of our nation, our history books remain whitewashed. Because of that omission, this nation’s origin stories contain misleading and false themes that feed prejudice and racism. These in turn, are used to justify continued acts of exclusion and discrimination.

The sad truth is that our nation has never succeeded in securing freedom for all its citizens. The racial divide continues not just out of prejudice, but out of ignorance. General Order No. 3 freed Black people on paper, but it did little to transform the minds of the former enslavers. Reconstruction failed to integrate and bring economic balance between those who worked the crops and those who owned the land. What gains were made, came primarily from education – teaching formerly enslaved people to read and explaining the value and necessity of voting.

A New National Holiday

For almost a century, Emancipation Day was considered a singularly Black, Texan event. Texas was the first state to formally observe this as a holiday in 1980. At the federal level, it took until 1990 for bills to be introduced into Congress urging Juneteenth be made a national holiday.

Finally, in January of 2023, House Resolution 25 was introduced by Representative Sheila Jackson Lee, Democrat of Texas. It was taken up by the Senate, received a unanimous vote (only after much blathering by Republicans), and finally was signed into law by President Biden on June 16, 2023.

Juneteenth Is Not My Holiday

I’ll admit, my title today was a bit of clickbait. But there is deeper meaning to it and a demand for fierce accounting. I am only now coming to terms with the historical weight of how slavery continues to impact people of color. The argument put forth by many white people saying that “my relatives didn’t own slaves”, does not absolve one from the fact that too little was done for too long to change the situation. There can be no innocent bystanders to this kind of injustice.

Anyone who has worked with people who have experienced trauma knows that the residue of that experience does not go away with a signed declaration of emancipation. To be truly free of those bonds, whether I was the one held hostage or I was the one in charge, requires a searching and fearless moral inventory of my beliefs and actions, admission of wrong doing, and a willingness to make amends.

Why I Will Join in Celebrating Juneteenth

Celebrating Juneteenth is an invitation to learn more of our history, accept that wrongs were done and take a stand in support of the ideals set forth in the Emancipation Proclamation. It is an invitation to remember that not all that long ago, some among us thought that certain human beings were no more than chattel who could be bought and sold, worked without pay, and slaughtered or abused at will.

It can and should be a reminder that such beliefs continue to fester and are re-emerging. It is an opportunity to embrace our differences while exploring our shared hopes and dreams. It is recognition that freedom may be declared for all, but it must be secured by all of us.

6 responses to “Juneteenth Is Not My Holiday”

  1. Rosalie Cushman Avatar
    Rosalie Cushman

    This is a wonderful, Mary. Kudos!!!

  2. nan sullivan Avatar
    nan sullivan

    too little for too long says it all; as usual, your views are on point in my opinion

  3. Kathryn W Page Avatar
    Kathryn W Page

    I did make a comment but then somehow managed to disappear it. If it shows up later, then this will be a repeat.

    This is the first time I’ve read anyone suggest that all of us would do well to honor Juneteenth. And it does ring out loud and clear in the silence prevailing, at least as far as I can tell, and I really may be missing something, and not only our general discourse but the progressive one as well. Thank you thank you thank you.

  4. Berkeley Fuller-Lewis Avatar
    Berkeley Fuller-Lewis

    Hello Mary, what a thoughtful and ‘on point’ post. The USA (like its “Anglo”-Saxon sibling — the U.K.) has slavery running deep through the foundations its history, its institutions and its “national subconscious.” Britain MAY be even more intransigent in denying the source of much (most?) of its (white) wealth; just consider that nation’s “reparations” for slavery — paid to the slave-HOLDERS (for their “loss”).

    Until these two “Anglo” nations fully come to grips with their own “black history” [ <– a dark pun] — and with our myriad sordid contributions to that history — the USA will never remotely become "a free country," and we WILL continue to experience the horrific and cyclic resurgence of racist "politics," such as we are now exactly doing . . . AGAIN. The slave trade (Yankee), plantation slavery (the South), generations of money for the few squeezed from cotton and tobacco . . . right down to bank "redlining" (to this day) — all that? Built on Racism — a ghost that will not "go away on its own." Thank you.

  5. Karen Langer-Gault Avatar
    Karen Langer-Gault

    Your final line, “..freedom may be declared for all, but it must be secured by all of us.” says it all, Mary. That Truth is the reason it is so important that we all learn what actually happened in the history of the world via a high quality, well-funded, PUBLIC education system led by well-educated teachers committed to the development of a well-educated citizenry with both the knowledge AND reasoning skills necessary for the fulfillment of their duties and benefits as participants in our democratic republic.

    You and I grew up in the same community at the same time, yet our life experiences with regard to this issue were significantly different due to our different family histories; and that led to very different levels of awareness and perspective until recently. We were fortunate to have attended what was then recognized as one of the best public school districts in the country. Yet we STILL were not fully informed and neither one of us knew about Juneteenth or the Tulsa Massacre. Given the limited number of hours in the day and the ever-burgeoning number of events/facts that could be included in the provision of a historical curriculum, it is not surprising that not everyone will know every one of them. But, the important thing was that we were taught how to THINK and were provided access to local branches of public libraries and were given enough of the important aspects of history that we COULD expand our knowledge base if we so chose. I remember having learned about Nat Turner and the slave revolts in elementary school history class and then wanting to learn more about them and spending that whole summer getting and reading books about them and the different experiences in the US and other nations. I remember learning about the Populists and the traveling evangelical preachers. So many things in our American History classes that have helped me make sense of, or at least understand the roots of, the forces being mustered by the different groups who are STILL at odds with each other today.

  6. Priscilla Miles Avatar
    Priscilla Miles

    Hello Mary

    I enjoyed and appreciated your article. I believe you would have approved of the Juneteenth celebration held in Sonoma yesterday. It was positive and focused on something we all share: food (as it related to the migration). It was a very different and refreshing viewpoint on this sometimes overwhelming topic. Hope you will plan to go next year–and bring your friends!

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