This Saturday’s Juneteenth will be observed all over our nation though it is not yet an official United States holiday. Like most holidays, it’s joyful. It is an annual re-proclamation of Black freedom, starting with slavery, but also from those who attempt to bind up human souls and deny their dignity, value and equality in any number of ways, from Jim Crow laws, to redlining, to targeting people and treating them as suspect.
Juneteenth’s seed began with the first Watch Night on Jan. 1, 1863, when the Emancipation Proclamation was to go into effect in many states.
First Watch: On that night, African-Americans gathered in churches and homes to pray and wait. Hundreds of Union soldiers, many of whom were Black, read the Proclamation while Black Americans held their breath. Unfortunately,the Proclamation did not apply to 500,000 African-Americans living in border states, a political move to keep the states loyal to the Union. Nor did it apply in territory controlled by the Confederacy, including in Texas. For another two and half years, slavery persisted.
Second Watch: On June 19, 1865, General Gordon Granger and 1800 troops arrived in Galveston, TX to enforce a federal decree to free slaves. Many of those were held by Southerners clutching at their dying “right” to own other human beings. Henry Louis Gates Jr reported for PBS that slavers waited to announce the news until forced and that the ex-Confederate mayor of Houston forced the freed people back to work. Leon Litwack wrote in Been in the Storm So Long that many freed men and women endangered themselves by trying to leave their enslavers. Some were shot; others whipped.
Third Watch: In another seven months, the US certified the 13th Amendment, which officially eradicated the practice of slavery but did not grant citizenship, due process, or equal protection to the men and women whose labor built the nation’s economy. All the Southern states with the exception of Tennessee, refused to ratify the 14th Amendment which recognized the citizenship of all persons born or naturalized in the United States, granting equal protection, privileges and immunities. Congress passed the Reconstruction Act of 1867 requiring the former Confederate states to ratify the 14th Amendment to be readmitted to the Union. Nevertheless, Black Americans could not vote.
Fourth Watch: In 1870, Congress ratified the 15th Amendment to grant African American men the right to vote. Over half a million Black Americans voted and elected two thousand Black men to various offices. But as swiftly, those rights and opportunities disappeared. By 1890, states wrote laws and created cultures to prevent democratic representation for Black Americans, using literacy tests, poll taxes, grandfather clauses, threats of violence and lynchings to shrink registered Black voters to a mere couple thousand.
In those decades of hope and uncertainty, Black Texans celebrated Juneteenth and exported it as they migrated across the nation. In early years, newly reunited families picnicked, prayed, and sang. They re-enacted the announcement. For decades, America’s second Independence Day remained a “secret” beacon, a motivation to press for full citizenship and to make American ideals of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness available to Black Americans. Though Juneteenth was popular, Houston refused to close banks in 1919 in recognition of the local holiday. Four days later, it closed banks for Jefferson Davis Day, noted Henry Louis Gates Jr.
Juneteenth was “a potent life-giving event … a joyful retort to messages of overt racism … a public counter-demonstration to displays of Confederate glorification and a counter-memory to the valorization of the Lost Cause,” wrote Hayes Turner.
Fifth Watch: Two months after Dr. King’s assassination, plans he laid for the Poor People’s March fizzled. On June 19, 1968, Rev Ralph Abernathy and Coretta Scott King canceled the event which Dr. King hoped would unite America’s low-income citizens to end poverty with help from Black leaders.
Sixth Watch: On Juneteenth 2021, the governor of Indiana will halt federal unemployment supplements for low income workers. Twenty-five states will end federal unemployment this month. Legislators still consider a fifteen dollar minimum wage too much, though it is still below a living wage. Naming daycare “infrastructure” is dismissed though it allows the working class to rejoin the workforce. Finally, in June, fourteen states enacted voter restriction laws, including restricting voting on Sundays, when many Black Americans attend church, then go to vote.
Juneteenth reminds us that though the human soul cannot be enslaved, liberty can be restricted. We are still on watch.
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