For growing numbers of African Americans, today is Juneteenth, a day to celebrate the end of slavery and historical new beginnings as free citizens of the United States of America.
The increasing popularity of Juneteenth celebrations illumines important facts about African Americans, American history, and the persistent hypocrisy that has for so long defined our national character.
The great abolitionist, Frederick Douglass, defined this hypocrisy in a lengthy Independence Day speech at Rochester, N.Y., in 1852. Speaking to a white audience, Douglass, a former slave, said:
“The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity, and independence bequeathed by your fathers is shared by you, not by me. This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn . . .
“What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim.
“To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; . . . your shouts of equality, hollow mockery; your prayers, your sermons, and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity are, to Him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy . . .”
At the time Douglass was speaking, there were more than 3 million black slaves throughout the country, with tens of millions more having died in the horrendous processes of African slave trading known as Middle Passage. More than a decade later, Douglass would go on to become an adviser to Abraham Lincoln and a proponent of the enlistment of blacks to fight in the Civil War.
In January 1863, President Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation. The proclamation, however, did not free all slaves. It only promised freedom to those slaves living in Confederate states. As a matter of historical fact, slaves were not granted full freedom until December 1865, with the passage of the 13th Amendment.
But it wasn’t until then, two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation and six months after the 13th Amendment, that slaves in Texas were told they were free. Historians are unclear as to the exact reasons for the delay, but the day Texans were told black slaves were free was June 19th — “Juneteenth.”
Since that time, there has been slow, but steady progress toward making June 19 a national day of observance (not a paid holiday). The present leader of the Juneteenth movement, Rev. (Dr.) Ron Myers, writes:
“We hope President Obama will acknowledge Juneteenth as the National Day of Reconciliation and Healing from the legacy of enslavement. Congress unanimously passed seven joint resolutions recognizing Juneteenth. We are hopeful that Congress will finally enact legislation to establish the 19th of June on all calendars as America’s 2nd Independence Day.”
The work of Dr. Myers and other Juneteenth Day proponents has resulted the recognition of the date by 42 states. Through the efforts of Representative William Crawford, Indiana was the 34th state to recognize the day, and Juneteenth celebrations have been or are being held throughout Indiana, including Anderson. It should be noted that Juneteenth celebrations are not intended to substitute for the July 4th holiday.
Throughout the states, these celebrations usually include events such as parades, community gatherings, special church services, backyard barbecues, or other activities that bring the community together in the spirit of unity and racial reconciliation. I expect these celebrations will become even more commonplace in the coming years as well as newsworthy.
Incidentally, through the efforts of Columbia Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, today a statue of Frederick Douglass will be unveiled in Washington, D.C., at the Capitol Visitor Center. The Douglass statue will be the fourth African American monument at the Center. His speech, “What to the American Slave is the 4th of July?” will be read at the unveiling ceremony.
In closing, I simply note that, the closer we come to the truth of the darkest chapters of our collective history — our past — the greater our chances of increasing understanding of one another, healing the wounds of the past, and, in the process, lighting the way to a brighter future for us all.
We have come a long way. But we still have far to go.
Have a nice day.
Anderson resident Primus Mootry is a retired school teacher. His column appears Wednesdays in The Herald Bulletin.