On July 5, 1852, Frederick Douglass gave a famous speech in Rochester, New York, in which he asked the question “What, to the slave, is the Fourth of July?”
While acknowledging the greatness of America’s founders, the formerly enslaved Douglass repudiated the day as a day of freedom for all Americans: “This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn. To drag a man in fetters into the grand illuminated temple of liberty and call upon him to join you in joyous anthems, is inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony.”
Douglass’s words are important to remember as Americans commemorate Juneteenth as a federal holiday, on Monday, June 20.
Juneteenth, also called Emancipation Day, or Juneteenth Independence Day, has its origins in the story of emancipation itself, the end of slavery in this country. It is an essential and crucial link in the American story of freedom.
The abolishment of slavery came to different places in different ways. It happened mainly through the action taken by the enslaved themselves, who knew from the beginning of the Civil War that the conflict had to do with the existence of slavery in the Southern states, and its extension into the new American territories in the West. Many of those who were enslaved took matters into their own hands. Some simply freed themselves once the war began — they walked away from plantations and farms. Others followed the United States Army when it arrived in force. Still others joined the United States armed forces and literally fought for freedom, always with the risk that capture by the enemy — according to Confederate policy — would mean re-enslavement.
Emancipation as a matter of military policy became official with President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, effective Jan. 1, 1863. It freed those held in slavery in the states that were in rebellion against the authority of the United States. As such, it could not be enforced until the appearance of the United States Army in those states, like Texas. Legend has it that those enslaved in Texas did not hear about emancipation — and hence their freedom — until the arrival of U.S. Gen. Gordon Granger on June 19, 1865, proclaiming the end of slavery in Texas.
While it is highly unlikely that this was the first notice that they received of their freedom, their celebration was symbolic of the jubilation felt by all those when freedom came.
Here was the day that Frederick Douglass had imagined for enslaved Black Americans, a day celebrated ever since with song, praise, and thanksgiving. It was a new day.
But was it? Instead of working to create a truly equal bi-racial society after the Civil War, many white Americans, in fact, worked tirelessly and unceasingly to prohibit it. For the next 100 years — through Reconstruction, Jim Crow, lynching, and segregation — many white Americans tried to recreate, as closely as possible, slavery in all but name, denying millions of their fellow Americans any semblance of equality in American civil, political and economic society. Had they spent one-tenth of that energy in tearing down White Supremacy instead of reinforcing it, the Civil Rights movement might have been unnecessary. Martin Luther King Jr. might be a 93-year-old, little-known preacher at an Atlanta church. Emmitt Till might have celebrated his 80th birthday last July.
Juneteenth was a day of promise, but it would be another century before that promise would begin to be fulfilled.
As the United States approaches its 250th anniversary as an independent and mature nation, America is once again grappling very publicly with difficult and tangled questions of race. Juneteenth is an important reminder of a uniquely transformative moment in our shared history. It also serves notice that the American nation that marched forth from 1776 did so with freedom and slavery locked hand in hand.
It is an extraordinary, inspiring and deeply disturbing story at one and the same time. Until we can understand how and why that happened, we can never truly understand this great country of ours, or what makes Juneteenth so remarkable.
Juneteenth was a benchmark in the history of freedom, an end and a beginning, a day long prayed and fought for by millions of people across many centuries. It is a day to commemorate all those who did not live to see it, and a moment to reflect and celebrate the role it played, and always will, in the ongoing and unfinished creation of a More Perfect Union.
Dr. Stan Deaton is the Senior Historian and the Dr. Elaine B. Andrews Distinguished Historian at the Georgia Historical Society.