Juneteenth

Two days ago, nobody really thought this would happen. Also, 7 other things worth your time.

At 3:30 pm Eastern today, President Biden is expected to sign a bill making June 19, Juneteenth National Independence Day, the 12th federal holiday.

I linked to a story about the surprise Senate passage of the bill this week in the “7 other things” section the other day. But I didn’t have time to do much more then, and I’d like to correct that now.

First, the background. In case you’re like me and grew up in the North, where Juneteenth was hardly mentioned until recent years, the day commemorates the arrival of Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger of the Union Army in Galveston, Texas on June 19, 1865, at the end of the Civil War.

Only then did people there learn that President Lincoln (who was assassinated two months earlier) had issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863.

Yes, you read right: that’s a two-year gap.

A striking thing about Granger’s official message, to me anyway, is that it wasn’t exactly heartfelt or congratulatory:

“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.”

Maybe the first line or two aren’t that bad…but read down a bit and it’s basically: 

  • Great, you’re free. But keep working for the exact same people who insisted they owned you, literally until minutes ago.

  • Don’t come to the military for help. Oh, and let’s just add a line that says if you’re prone to “idleness,” forget it; you’re on your own.

Perhaps, having just won a bloody civil war, I suppose the order might have threaded a needle—trying to enforce freedom in fact, while not giving the now-former slave owners (and their supporters) a rallying cry to immediately fight again. But…it wasn’t exactly a celebration of rights.

Also, Lincoln’s order—and thus Granger’s proclamation — only talked about banning slavery in the former Confederacy.

It took the 13th Amendment to ban slavery throughout the country under the Constitution. And the 14th and 15th Amendments—citizenship, equal protection, not denying the right to vote “on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude”—weren’t enacted until 1866 and 1880.

But former slaves, and eventually their descendants, took hold of June 19 and made it their annual celebration.1

Currently 47 states and Washington, DC recognize the day, but most of them only did so in the last 20 years.

Now, I don’t mean to suggest that making a new holiday somehow rights centuries of wrong. And I’ve certainly seen some people saying that Congress is using it as cover to avoid tackling other, bigger issues about race.

Still, I’m also struck once again by how slowly things can move for a long time in our society—and then suddenly change very quickly. A single senator could have held Juneteenth up under Senate rules this week, and in fact Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin did exactly that the last time it was introduced.

But this time he went along, saying “it is clear that there is no appetite in Congress to further discuss the matter.” Then, the House approved the same bill by a vote of 415 to 14 on Wednesday.

As the National Museum of African American History & Culture, part of the Smithsonian, puts it:

Juneteenth marks our country’s second independence day. Although it has long celebrated in the African American community, this monumental event remains largely unknown to most Americans.

True enough; I must admit that I don’t think I had even heard of Juneteenth until I lived in DC as an adult. But now, it won’t be unknown much longer.

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7 other things worth your time

1

I wrote some of this section here a year ago, but I think the the tone of the proclamation is worth noting. (Also, given the growth of Understandably, roughly 97% of people reading this today weren’t readers then!)