An incredible thing happened this week in Washington — lawmakers passed legislation.
It is no small feat in this highly partisan era that politicians, who cannot agree on a commission to study the deadly Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection or what should go into an infrastructure bill, came together to create a holiday commemorating the moment people in Texas learned the emancipation had finally come.
On Thursday, the nation’s first Black vice president, Kamala Harris, spoke ahead of the bill’s signing, highlighting the significance of the holiday and the misconceptions surrounding it.
“Let’s be clear about what happened on June 19, 1865 — the day we call Juneteenth. Because you see, that day was not the end of slavery in America,” she told lawmakers and advocates who had long pushed for the federal recognition. “On that day, the enslaved people of Galveston, Texas, learned that they were free.”
As Harris noted, most Americans don’t actually know what Juneteenth is, and what it is not.
The holiday is about the moment on June 19, 1865, when Union Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger told Texans that the Civil War was over and shared news of emancipation, reading aloud an order declaring “absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves.”
News of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender to the Union at Virginia’s Appomattox Court House over two months prior had traveled slowly.When those who had been enslaved finally got the news, they deemed it proper to celebrate the moment.
It was an iconic one for many Black Texans, said Brandon R. Byrd, a historian at Vanderbilt University. And the celebration became increasingly popular over the decades.
As Black Texans moved to neighboring states, so did the holiday, Byrd said, and as they continued their migration northward during the early 20th century, it became known nationwide.
Byrd noted, however, that people should be cautious about elevating one date as the end of slavery.
Why emancipation can’t be pinned to June 19
Emancipation unfolded over time across this hemisphere. And Black Americans have long celebrated in different ways.
For Haitian Americans, Jan. 1 marks the anniversary of when their enslaved ancestors were emancipated. The first Black republic’s Declaration of Independence came around 60 years before the American Civil War, after a slave rebellion bested the French army.
In the U.S. capital, April 16 commemorates the day in 1862 that President Lincoln approved legislation that freed around 3,000 enslaved people and compensated slaveholders for their financial loss.
And although slavery was officially outlawed by the 13th Amendment in 1865, a new kind emerged after the Civil War.
The amendment made slavery illegal “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted” — but when Union troops left the South in the 1870s, Southern lawmakers exploited its loopholes by criminalizing much of Black Americans’ existence, said Douglas A. Blackmon, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and professor at Georgia State University’s Creative Media Industries Institute.
“Statutes that made it a crime to be unemployed were rarely enforced on anyone except Black people,” Blackmon said. “Tens of thousands of Black people were charged and forced to labor for counties, white-owned business and white landowners.”
Full emancipation of those descended from enslaved Americans didn’t come until the 1960s, he added.
“We want history to move along in a nice neat chronological order, but the struggle against racism has gone backward and forwards for decades,” Blackmon said.
So why make Juneteenth a holiday now?
In 1980, Texas became the first state to make it a holiday. But Black activists wanted national recognition, and have lobbied Congress for decades.
Fort Worth resident Opal Lee, 94, who walked from her hometown in Texas to Washington in 2016 to bring attention to the effort, was at the White House for Thursday’s signing ceremony.
Attempts by Washington lawmakers to make it a federal holiday stretch back to at least 1996, when Rep. Barbara-Rose Collins (D-Mich.) put forth a successful House measure.
The response to George Floyd’s murder by police last year is the main reason the law finally passed, said Hasan Kwame Jeffries, a historian at the Ohio State University.
“One of the unique things about last summer is that 25 million people marched and demanded not just an end to police brutality but also systemic racism … and discussed how it’s connected to American slavery,” Jeffries said.
Some protesters demanded police accountability, the elimination of the racial wealth gap and formally making Juneteenth a holiday, he said.
Last summer Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) introduced legislation in their respective chambers, and it was finally approved this week.
What Juneteenth means for Americans today
Creating holidays is “meaningful but it’s also modest,” said Jeffries. “The question is, what will Washington do beyond making Juneteenth a holiday?”
“But for those who are serious, it becomes a point of entry to talk about America. We’ve as a nation … never paused to do that,” he said.
Niambi Carter, a political scientist at Howard University, was more critical.
“At the end of the day, what Black people want is equality,” she said. “A holiday is just a show.”
Carter juxtaposed the federal holiday’s creation with some states’ attempts to ban the teaching of critical race theory, a framework academics have used for decades to analyze how laws impact people of color.
“You can’t create the holiday and then refuse to talk about how Black people got here,” she said.
President Biden said before signing the bill that Juneteenth “doesn’t just celebrate the past. It calls for action today.”
He called on Congress to pass legislation addressing voting rights and limited Black homeownership, and to study how reparations could solve the racial wealth gap.
“The truth is, it’s … simply not enough just to commemorate Juneteenth,” the president added. “After all, the emancipation of enslaved Black Americans didn’t mark the end of America’s work to deliver on the promise of equality; it only marked the beginning.”