Black History Month encompasses the month of February in a celebration of Black culture, Black history, and Black love. It also is a month to meditate on Black oppression in all its forms, both past and present, and the ways we can heal the scars of slavery and systemic racism.
Systemic Racism: Institutional racism; a form of racism that is embedded into laws and regulations within society. It can lead to such issues as discrimination in criminal justice, employment, housing, health care, political power, and education, among others.
Yet, something called “Juneteenth” rolls around on the 19th of June, and at a glance, it… seems just like Black History Month?? What is Juneteenth? How is it different from Black History month?
Unlike Black History Month, which is less about a specific moment and tends to encompass a broad discussion and celebration of Black History, Juneteenth honors a very specific and special day for Black Americans.
Juneteenth is the oldest known celebration of the ending of slavery, and marks the day when the last of the Black American slaves were freed! It is Independence Day for Black Americans and it was first celebrated in Texas on June 19th in 1865.
Now, you may wonder, ” June 19th, 1865? Weren’t Black American slaves declared free under the terms of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863?” And, technically yes, you would be right! However, there were many White Americans who felt it was their God-given right to own human beings as slaves, and they were not happy about the new changes made by President Lincoln.
Many White slave owners did their best to keep the news of the Emancipation Proclamation from the ears of Black Americans, especially in places under Confederate control like Texas. On top of that, the Civil War (which was fought over slavery) helped to bog down communications across the states, making it difficult for the news to spread.
A whole two years later, it took Union Troops until June 19th, 1865 to arrive in Galveston, Texas with the news that the Civil War was over and that the remaining 250,000+ slaves in Texas were freed. This day is what we know now as Juneteenth!
One Joyous Moment, But Not Over Yet
Juneteenth is a moment of joy and should be rightfully recognized and celebrated as a major turning point in the fight for Black American rights and freedom. However, as much as we might wish that Juneteenth was the moment that fixed it all, the truth is that freedom and the fight for the rights of Black Americans was not even close to being over.
Even though the Emancipation Proclamation had been signed, slavery was not yet officially abolished until the signing of the 13th Amendment on December 6th, 1865, a whole 6 months later from the final emancipation on June 19th.
The 13th Amendment: "Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except for 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."
Once Black American slaves were freed, they weren’t given any help with where to go, where to live, what to do, where to get hired, or anything you might need to know or have in order to be a functioning member of a money-based society. The United States had a large body of displaced people with nowhere to go, who were now trying to function in a society surrounded by White Americans who still didn’t think of them as people.
White Americans, especially the slave owners in the Confederate South, were furious that their “right” to own human beings was taken away, and thus, began to find new ways to reclaim ownership of and take out their anger on newly freed Black Americans.
Immediately, the former slave owner forces started to arrest Black people for things such as vagrancy and trespassing on the only land they knew, using the article in the 13th Amendment “except for as a punishment for crime” as a way to cheat the new law. Once convicted of these crimes, these freed slaves found themselves again in bondage.
Other Black Americans, if not unfairly incarcerated, were allowed to stay on and work the land of their former slave owners, which benefitted plantation owners both in that they could keep their workforce and profit, while making sure that former slaves did not make enough money to start anything for themselves.
Thus, begins an era of extreme violence and oppression against Black Americans, the beginning of the American Prison and Criminal Justice System, and of American White Supremist Terrorist groups, such as the Ku Klux Klan, that rose in the 1860s.
Today, Black Americans still experience the effects of slavery and the systemic racism that grew as a response to White America’s refusal to release control over their lives. With the death of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor in 2020, we are given a glimpse of the struggle that Black Americans still face every day in the aftermath of slavery, as they continue to endure brutality in a country that, on paper, tells them they are free.
Juneteenth is Black American Independence Day. It speaks to celebrate everything Black Americans have gained, to mourn everything they have lost, and to fight for what is still being denied to the Black American community.
Here are some resources to help you celebrate and learn more about Juneteenth!