Dr. Valerie Ann Johnson
Dean – Arts, Sciences & Humanities
Co-director – Center for Racial and Social Justice
A bill just made its way through the US Congress. The Senate voted unanimously to make Juneteenth a federal holiday. And the House passed their version of the bill with only 14 nay votes. Once signed by President Joe Biden, it will be law. It is a reminder that our elected, legislative body enacts the laws we are bound to live by in our society. Juneteenth reminds us that it was by another act of Congress that enslaved Africans became “free” albeit with constraints and conditions. But laws are only as good as their enforcement. 156 years later the physical shackles may not bind us into servitude however we have to keep watch over those entities that would cast us into servitude that without diligence will recast us as slaves through intellectual, economic, and social bondage.
For those unfamiliar with Juneteenth it is a bittersweet commemoration and celebration of the day those enslaved in Texas found out they had been freed. Major General Gordon Granger issued General Orders Number 3 on June 19, 1865 in Galveston Texas that read:
“The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.”
While many celebrate with cookouts, parades, outdoor events, and concerts Juneteenth is also bittersweet for several reasons. First, the enslaved in Texas did not learn of the Emancipation Proclamation until two-and-a-half years after it was issued (January 1, 1863). In the time after the Proclamation close to 200,000 Black men had enlisted to fight. These U.S. Colored Troops helped carry the message of freedom from throughout the former confederate states. And even when order No. 3 had been issued, most of the 250,000 enslaved in Texas were not immediately freed. Across the state, owners of the former enslaved determined when and how to announce the news or waited until forced to do so by federal troops. Bitter because when many of the freed slaves tried to assert their freedom, they were lynched or shot. Bittersweet because even when the 13th Amendment – to abolish slavery in the U. S. – was finally ratified it was not absolute. Sweet because we are commemorating the promise of freedom.
And in that freedom year of 1865 – Shaw University was founded. Worth remembering as we remember and mark Juneteenth. Worth remembering that with freedom came responsibility and that institutions were built and maintained to this day that allow us, as Black people in America, the opportunities to exercise our intellectual, economic, and social freedoms.