from the port
through the countryside
and into the fields
that a Union general read from a balcony that we were all
now and forever free
all different now.
from All Different Now:
Juneteenth, the First Day of Freedom
written by Angela Johnson
illustrated by E. B. Lewis
Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2014
I remember when we celebrated Abe Lincoln’s birthday and George Washington’s birthday on their real birthdays. I remember when Decoration Day became Memorial Day. We all knew when D-Day was, and Armistice Day, and Pearl Harbor Day, too.
Names change to become more inclusive, dates change to become more convenient, and very occasionally, a new national holiday is added to our calendar to emphasize a particular aspect of American heritage or celebrate an event in American history.
Congress has considered national holidays honoring both Susan B. Anthony and Caesar Chavez, each for their contributions to American society. Since 2011, Congress has discussed, on and off, a proposal to make Election Day a national holiday. None of these suggestions has become reality.
In 1934, FDR established the second Monday in October as Columbus Day, a national holiday. “Congress believed that the nation would be honoring the courage and determination which enabled generations of immigrants from many nations to find freedom and opportunity in America.” (Congressional Research Service Report) In 2022, many people choose to celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day on the second Monday in October instead.
Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday has been celebrated as a national holiday since Ronald Reagan signed legislation in November, 1983.
All together, we celebrate eleven National Holidays. Here they are. Even though Juneteenth has been celebrated, mostly in Texas, since June 19, 1865, it took over 200 years for Americans to recognize its importance and for our president to establish the day as a national holiday. Many people still don’t know why June 19 was selected for our newest national holiday, the first since 1983.
Here it is: Juneteenth commemorates the end of the Civil War, the official end of slavery, and celebrates the significance African American heritage has added to our culture.
On January 1, 1863, in the midst of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln, through the Emancipation Proclamation, declared all enslaved people to be legally free. But that freedom could not take effect in places still under Confederate control. This included the western-most part of Texas. It took two-and-a-half more years before the announcement could be made telling the enslaved people there, that they are free.
On June 19, 1865, Major General Gordon Granger along with 2,000 soldiers, rode into Galveston and explained that the Emancipation Proclamation combined with the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States assured their freedom throughout the land. The 250,000 formerly enslaved people of Texas were finally and legally free.
The joint resolution of the amendment was signed by President Abraham Lincoln on February 1, 1865, and ratified on December 6, 1865. In the language of the amendment, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”
The phrase “except as a punishment…convicted” was the cause of much agony. Its misinterpretation led to lynchings and Jim Crow laws, and did nothing to assuage ingrained, generational prejudice.
In the century and a half since the end of the Civil War, our citizens, Black, white, brown, young, old, men, women, and everyone landing anywhere on the spectrum of these several dichotomies, grapple with what it means to be American.
Juneteenth can be appreciated by everyone. It’s a national holiday honoring our Union, the defeat of division, and a celebration of African American influences on American culture.
Despite recent and current pushback, the US is becoming more diverse and more accepting. Our holidays and celebrations highlight and lift up our differences, and our similarities.
Be curious! (and celebrate each other)