Black History Month Series – Juneteeth

Juneteenth is a national holiday in the United States that symbolises the fight for freedom of enslaved people and celebrates the end of slavery in the United States. Although Juneteenth precedes Black History Month, American President Joe Biden, on 17 June 2021, fuelled by the protests sparked after the death of George Floyd signed into law a bill that recognised Juneteenth as an official holiday. In the US, it is now common for companies such as Nike, Uber and Spotify to give employees a paid day off on the 17th June. Juneteenth is not something that is celebrated in the UK.

The origins of Juneteenth date back to the American civil war which took place between 1861 and 1865. When Republican President Lincoln was elected in 1860, he pledged to prohibit slavery in the territories that had not yet become states. However, States in the deep south of America such as Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas, where slavery was widely practiced, opposed any such prohibition. The American Civil War largely occurred because the United States of America (the Union) and 11 states that left the Union to form the Confederate States of America had disagreements on slavery. Following this, the Emancipation Proclamation was issued on 1 January 1863. This had the effect of freeing enslaved Americans in states that supported and thrived from the institution of slavery. At the stroke of midnight of the new year of 1863, African Americans gathered in churches, private homes and marched in plantations to celebrate the occasion. However, little did they know that they were not truly free.

The Emancipation Proclamation was limited in three ways. First, it only applied to the Confederate States. This means enslaved people in states controlled by the Union or confederate states later conquered by the Union were exempted. Secondly, four States which bordered the Confederate States were exempt. Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland and Missouri were allowed to practice slavery as a way of encouraging them not to join the Confederacy. Lastly, the promise of freedom that the Emancipation Proclamation carried was dependent on the Union winning the war. This meant only the Union winning the civil war could guarantee the freedom of African Americans. This ended up having a positive impact on American society as it captured the hearts of many, particularly African Americans, and encouraged them to fight for freedom for all. The Emancipation Proclamation significantly strengthened the Union’s army. It enabled over 200,000 free black men to join the Union as soldiers and as part of the Navy after 1863. Following this, the Emancipation Proclamation was made into national policy after it was passed by the Senate and House of Representatives in 1864 as the Thirteenth Amendment. Unlike the Proclamation, the amendment, which states that neither slavery or involuntary servitude shall exist within the United States, entirely outlawed slavery within the United States and its areas of jurisdiction.

On the 9th of April 1865 the civil war was decisively over following the surrender of the largest group of Confederate troops. Those fighting to be liberated finally were the liberators as they directly contributed to the Union winning the civil war. Although it appeared that the fight for freedom was finally over, this was not the case as Texas continued to practice slavery. Historians believe this occurred for a number of reasons such as the lack of Union soldiers in the State which made the prohibition order difficult to enforce, the fact that communication was poor in that era and that Texan slave owners purposefully withheld the information from slaves to further exploit them for their free labour. It was not until Union soldiers arrived in Galveston Texas to deliver the message, on the 19th of June 1865, that the war was over, and slavery was prohibited that the remaining slaves in Texas knew they were free. Hence why Juneteenth is celebrated on the 19th of June.

Most Americans and American history focus on the 4th of July as American Independence Day. This was first celebrated in 1776. However, the truth is that for decades, white Americans celebrated American freedom whilst African Americans were enslaved in their fields. It was not until Juneteenth arrived in 1865 that enslaved black Americans were finally emancipated. As a result, Juneteenth is celebrated as Independence Day for African Americans. Yet, even with the thirteenth amendment, black people and people of color were never truly free. We’ve read of the massacres of the 19th century, most notably in Tulsa Oklahoma when mobs of white Americans attacked and killed and attacked black residents in 1921, Jim Craw laws of the 20th century, and institutional racism of the 21st century. It can be argued that these actions are not any different from traditional slavery. The question is does acknowledging Juneteenth as a national holiday signify progress? To some, the answer is definitively yes as all Americans can say it is a day that represents freedom for all. However, care must be taken to ensure the day does not remain a symbolic gesture.

Leave a Reply