With the horror of the shooting at a black church in Charleston, South Carolina, a little more than 24 hours old, and with the racial hatred that led the murderer to fire on the members of a devout Bible study group so palpable, I feel that it's more important than usual to point out that today, June 19, is Juneteenth—actually, the 150th anniversary of Juneteenth. It's a celebration of the end of legal slavery in the U.S. and a reminder of how great the resistance was at the time and how jagged the path to racial equality was and continues to be.
This old white man, who considers himself reasonably well educated, knows very little about Juneteenth. I hadn't even heard of it, I believe, until the posthumous publication of Ralph Ellison's novel, Juneteenth, in 1999, and I might not have paid attention even then if Ellison's Invisible Man wasn't one of my all-time favorite novels. Juneteenth: it seemed like a strange word and an odd title to me at the time. I put the blame partly on myself for not digging deeply enough into the history of race relations in the U.S., but I can't blame myself for not having the holiday even mentioned in the history textbooks I read in school or in the mainstream media I absorbed all my life. That omission, as well as the omission of so much of the history of racial oppression in this country from slavery to the present day, is part of that same jagged path, with all its switchbacks and washed-out bridges, we are taking in our attempts to increase our knowledge and understanding of our shared history and to move toward greater racial equality. That the road is so torturous is one of the great shames of our nation.
Here are two descriptions of the history of Juneteenth you can read if you wish. One is on the Juneteenth.com website
. The other, a more caustic and cynical view titled The Hidden History Of Juneteenth
, appeared on the Talking Points Memo website yesterday.
Here's a very short history of the events leading to the holiday, which I'm quoting directly from the juneteenth.com website so I don't put my shameful ignorance on further display:
Juneteenth is the oldest known celebration commemorating the ending of slavery in the United States. Dating back to 1865, it was on June 19th that the Union soldiers, led by Major General Gordon Granger, landed at Galveston, Texas with news that the war had ended and that the enslaved were now free. Note that this was two and a half years after President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation - which had become official January 1, 1863. The Emancipation Proclamation had little impact on the Texans due to the minimal number of Union troops to enforce the new Executive Order. However, with the surrender of General Lee in April of 1865, and the arrival of General Granger’s regiment, the forces were finally strong enough to influence and overcome the resistance.