By Thomas E. Strunk, IJPC Blog Team Contributor
After a Union ship settled into Galveston Bay, Major General Gordon Granger read General Order Number 3 from his headquarters. It was June 19th 1865. The announcement proclaimed the freedom of enslaved Texans, over 250,000 people, the last in the former Confederacy to receive the news that they were now free, two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation and over two months after the Confederate surrender at Appomattox.
The anniversary of Juneteenth has got me thinking a lot about summer holidays recently. A few weeks back we celebrated Memorial Day, which has come to mark the beginning of summer for so many. Kids are getting out of school and the weather’s becoming warmer; it is hard not to be excited by the promise of it all. Not to mention, many of us have the day off. Memorial Day began in the years following the Civil War, as family members and friends returned to graves to remember their loved ones. That bloody war resulted in many deaths and many people winning their freedom. It is not a story of undiluted glory, but it is a story central to our national character.
Yet May 31st also marks the beginning of the Tulsa Race Massacre, which bled into the month of June and requires of us a memorial of another sort. A hundred years ago, 1921, a White mob killed hundreds of Black Americans and destroyed an entire neighborhood, Greenwood, home of Black Wall Street. Aerial attacks were even deployed, some of the first in U.S. history. No reparations were ever made; no justice was ever served by the perpetrators. To think of the honorable Civil War dead and to forget Tulsa seems to do violence to history, our history.
Now we are poised to celebrate Juneteenth. It is worth noting that following June 19th there were still enslaved Americans. Delaware and Kentucky, which never seceded from the Union, still allowed slavery and were not under the jurisdiction of the Emancipation Proclamation. The last enslaved Americans were not freed until six months later upon the passage of the 13th Amendment, which was ratified on December 6, 1865 and declared valid by Secretary of State Seward on December 18, 1865. America’s story of freedom has always been one of fits and starts, tenuous liberation, and a constant struggle to keep it. Further, this history reflects America’s haphazard manner of ending slavery: personal emancipation, state by state, executive order, and finally constitutional amendment.
A few weeks from now, we will celebrate Independence Day, July 4th, to recognize our nation’s founding and independence from England and monarchy and any other tyrant looking to rule us. We are free and created equal, our Declaration of Independence reminds us. Yet, as Frederick Douglass recognized in his speech “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?”, we were not, are not, equal and equally free. So July 4th sits less easily in the American mind than it should, and we continue to question its meaning for us.
I do not know how to reconcile and fit together all the dates, events and holidays rolling through my thoughts and the calendar. They seem like an odd fit in my date book, as if put there by disparate groups of people rather than one nation. They are full of tension and mighty contradictions with one another. They reveal glaring inconsistencies between word and deed. We may be tempted to choose to recognize or celebrate one or another of them, or one set or another of the dates, and repudiate the others. I imagine we are free to do that. Though that is becoming harder given that Memorial Day, and thereby Tulsa, and July 4th are already on the national calendar and Juneteenth is gaining momentum. State houses and the national government remain hesitant to observe Juneteenth; Texas is still the only state where Juneteenth is formally observed rather than simply recognized, as in most states such as Ohio. Nonetheless, more Americans will have the day off this year, since in the aftermath of the protests against the murder of George Floyd Juneteenth has been designated as an officially observed holiday by many municipalities and counties, such as Hamilton County, Ohio, workplaces such as Nike and Twitter, and schools, including Xavier University.
I think we need to observe all these dates and events and wrestle with their meaning in some reflective and public way, though perhaps with different moods or spirits. We need to find a way to live with the fullness of our history, the glory and the dishonor, the beauty and the horror, the nobility and the disgrace of it all. Therefore, I encourage you to support local and national efforts to designate Juneteenth as an observed holiday. If you live in Ohio, you can contact your senator or representative and ask them to endorse S.B. 78, cosponsored by Senators Craig and Brenner. In the U.S. Congress, the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act has been introduced in the House, H.R.1320 sponsored by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX), and Senate, S.475 sponsored by Sen. Edward J. Markey (D – MA).
Cincinnati will celebrate Juneteenth with a number of events and festivities. Perhaps we will meet each other there.
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