As we commemorate Juneteenth this year, its 156th anniversary is an especially monumental moment with the federal passage of the Juneteenth National Independence Day Holiday.
This holiday represents a joyous moment celebrating the emancipation of those who had been enslaved in the United States – originating in Galveston, Texas. The day marks the anniversary of the date, June 19, 1865, and the announcement by Union General Gordon Granger proclaiming freedom from slavery in Texas for the enslaved people. This was a joyous, celebratory event, and as we commemorate this moment, we recognize the elation, hopefulness, and healing that not only started with this event, but continues today.
However, it is essential that we also recognize that freedom from slavery did not mean full equality in American society for African Americans. The struggle continued then, as it does now. While June 19, 1865, marked an important day in ending slavery in the United States, it did not mark the ending of systemic oppression of African Americans in this country.
There is still much work to be done to get to full equality in America – for all people regardless of race. Unfortunately, much of that work has and will continue to fall on those who are most oppressed. To quote Fredrick Douglas, “The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.”
As we consider the overdue recognition of the end of slavery as an event worthy of commemoration as a federal holiday, we grapple with how to best imbue the new federal holiday with meaning that is worthy of the roots of Juneteenth. I humbly suggest that the holiday represents both the joy of progress as well as the totality of the struggle.
On Juneteenth, we celebrate the joy and jubilation that was felt and expressed in the African American community when almost 90 years after July 4, 1776, African Americans got their freedom. It is in that expression of joy and jubilation that we see the humanity of the enslaved people and other members of their race that has and continues to have systematically denied them. It is the “question” of the humanity of African Americans that is at the heart of their systematic oppression.
A country that was founded on the principles that “all men are created equal” and that they “are endowed with certain inalienable rights’ could only institute slavery, Jim Crow and other forms of legal racial oppression by denying the groups that it devalues of their humanity. By celebrating African American’s humanity, we actively reject those founding principles of this country, we acknowledge the systemic oppression in our history, and we celebrate the source of African American resilience.
This resilience has allowed them to not only survive systemic oppression in America for more than 400 years, but time after time, thrive in some of the most inhumane conditions imaginable.
It is also important that as Juneteenth becomes a federal holiday, that we as a nation both educate and dedicate ourselves to the struggle that has been at the center of our country’s founding —ending systemic racial oppression in our society. Only in this way will Juneteenth truly become an American holiday.
It is my hope that situated in the middle of the calendar year, that we not only use the day to enjoy our families and engage in the joyous celebrations that were experienced by the newly “freed” people, but that it will also serve as a day in which we as a nation not only assess where we are in fulfilling our promise of racial equality, but that we also use this as a day in which we both as individuals, institutions, and society also renew a commitment to do even more to end racism.
Thus, I implore you to celebrate Juneteenth with all your heart, with all the happiness, with all the joy that our ancestors must have felt hearing that they were ultimately free, but also with an understanding that there is still work to be done. Not just for today, but for those who came before us, and those who will come after us.
Robert M. Sellers, PhD
Vice Provost for Equity and Inclusion
Chief Diversity Officer