Juneteenth: A personal reflection

In June 2021, 156 years after slaves in Galveston Texas learned that Abraham Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation more than two years earlier, the U.S. Government recognized June 19th, 1865—Juneteenth—as a Federal holiday. Here's what Juneteenth means for me—and what it can mean for all of us.

Juneteenth: a personal reflection
Photo by Javardh on Unsplash

A little over 157 years ago, a history-making event took place that changed America and especially the lives of black Americans. In 2021, the U.S. recognized that event, Juneteenth, as a Federal holiday. For many in the African American community, June 19th is an important date and moment of reflection. But for my friends, colleagues, and customers who are not as familiar with this date, I would like to take a moment to share my thoughts on what Juneteenth means for me—and what it can mean for all of us.

What is Juneteenth?

During the waning days of the Civil War, word traveled very slowly. When Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, the news did not reach everyone at the same time. Many slaves, including a group who lived in Galveston, Texas, toiled under the brutal conditions of slavery for more than two years. But that changed on June 19, 1865—Juneteenth for short. Union Army General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston and announced to these slaves that they were free.

Was this the end of slavery? No. There were still some holdouts across the southern states, and it would not be until the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment almost six months later that slavery would be abolished. Nonetheless, the celebrations that arose on that June day in Texas have resonated throughout the years as a celebration for all African Americans.

What Juneteenth means to me

Juneteenth is not a day I learned about in my 1980s civics classes in rural Alabama. In those days, the civil rights movement took up only three pages of my Alabama history textbook. Juneteenth was something I learned of later in life from my family and friends. It was something that I learned from my Great Aunt Ella – who was old enough to have known slaves firsthand – before she passed. I also learned from my sister who is old enough to remember white-only bathrooms and waiting rooms. I learned from my father who grew up as a sharecropper in rural Alabama. For me, Juneteenth is a multifaceted celebration of hope and freedom. And at the same time, it is the ultimate example of a dream deferred.

Although a day of celebration, Juneteenth is also a day of remembrance. It is a day to celebrate in collective joy the removal of the yoke of slavery, but also a day to remember that the 400-plus years of oppression were quickly replaced by “black codes,” which created the foundation for Jim Crow laws and the preposterous idea of “separate but equal,” the remnants of which still plague us today. We see the results of this continued oppression in the disproportionally high African American male incarceration rate, disproportionally low black college graduation rates, unfair housing practices, economic inequality, unfair policing practices, and the list goes on and on.

Juneteenth brings a mixture of emotions for me, because, on the one hand, I am overjoyed that I can celebrate Independence Day for Black Americans. But at the same time, it pains me to see that we still suffer injustice at the hands of some of those who are sworn to protect us, that we still struggle with economic and social equality, that we still are underrepresented in the technology industry and many other industries, at all levels. This dichotomy is something most African Americans are forced to endure and are taught by our families how to navigate.

This is no excuse, and we must strive to do better!

What Juneteenth can mean for all of us

So how do we collectively do better, and why should Juneteenth be important to us all? Although we may come from different backgrounds and races, we can all use Juneteenth as a time to consider the struggles of our colleagues and friends and to recognize that we still struggle with the sins of our past.

There are still inequalities in our world, and while there are people who hold on to the idea that we are in a post-racial society, and everyone has a fair shot, sadly this is not the case. That dream is still being deferred. Juneteenth is an opportunity for us all to work to do better for ourselves, our friends and colleagues, our communities, and our children.

So, what can you do?

One place to start is to learn more about Juneteenth:

Poem

History and culture

Juneteenth reading lists

Videos

Podcast

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