On Thursday, President Joe Biden signed a bill making June 19 or Juneteenth a national holiday in the United States. June 19,1865 is marked as the day the last group of enslaved Black people in Galveston, TX learned of their freedom. This day marks two and a half years after President Abraham Lincoln initially signed the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1,1863 that freed all enslaved Black people in the southern states.
In a press conference, Biden said signing Juneteenth into law as a federal holiday is his greatest honor thus far as President.
“Great nations don’t ignore those painful moments; they embrace them,” Biden said. “This day doesn’t just celebrate the past, it calls for action today.”
Biden said celebrating Juneteenth means creating equality for all communities on issues like healthcare, voting rights, and education.
“The promise of equality is not going to be fulfilled until it becomes a reality in our schools, mainstreets and in our neighborhoods,” Biden said.
Both President Biden and Kamala Harris thanked Juneteenth advocate and Forth Worth resident Opal Lee for all her hard work in making this day a holiday.
Lee, grandmother of the movement, walked two and half miles every June 19th to commemorate the time between the Emancipation Proclamation being signed and the good news reaching enslaved Texans.
Vice President Kamala Harris said making Juneteenth a national holiday makes a statement and highlights American history.
“National holidays are something important. These are days when we as a nation have decided to stop, stalk and often to acknowledge our history.” Harris said. “We must learn from our history and we must teach our children because it is part of our history as a nation. It is part of American history.”
On June 19,1865 Major Gordon Granger, a union army general, read this order to Texans:
“The people of Texas are informed that in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired laborer.”
Prairie View A&M University Assistant History professor Dr. Marco Robinson said the enslaved Black people in Galveston were happy to be free, but that freedom came with new challenges. After learning of their freedom, Robinson said a lot of Black people in Galveston moved to Houston to start a new life and build their own communities.
“When they heard General Gordon Granger read that proclamation to them you’re free but the only thing you had in your possession was the clothes on your back,” Robinson said. “On one hand you’re elated that the yoke of bondage has been lifted from your neck, but now you have all these new questions.”
According to Robinson, The Freedmen’s Bureau played an integral role in supporting enslaved Black people to move forward. But when Black Codes and Jim Crow laws were introduced during the reconstruction era the pathway to true freedom became even harder.
“With the establishment of schools for Blacks, freedom colonies/towns, third and fourth wards being established it was going to take time for Blacks to get on their feet and establish community,” Robinson said.
At the same time America is celebrating Juneteenth becoming a national holiday, Texas and other states across the country are pushing legislation limiting teachers from educating their students on America’s racist history. According to Robinson, Republicans’ push for anti-critical race theory legislation is very reminiscent of the Reconstruction era.
“We don’t want to acknowledge the fact that during a particular period in this country human beings were owned,” Robinson said. “People don’t want to accept the fact in this country that white privilege exists whether it’s voluntary or involuntary and tied to it is a racial system that’s setup by people of color to have had the short end of the stick.”
According to Robinson, reparations for Black people also need to be acknowledged in the celebration of Juneteenth.
“As a country we haven’t begun to deal with our past and why we don’t want to pay reparations,” Robinson said. “It was okay for us to consider paying slave owners restitution for losing slaves and owning human beings, but when you think about restitution for the workers, people don’t want to talk about that.”
Despite all obstacles, Black people still progressed and started building a life for them and their children’s futures. According to Robinson, Black people’s first priority in their communities was to build public schools. Historically, Black colleges and universities were created in response to segregation and white institutions refusing to admit Black students. So universities like Prairie View A&M and Texas Southern were born.
“It helped the African-American community become a viable source for advancement during the late 1800 early 1900’s,” Robinson said. “They contribute to an important part of who we are and their stories are an important part of the American narrative.”
Sheridan Lorenz, co-chair of the Juneteenth Legacy Project, said the “Absolute Equality” mural in downtown Galveston visually educates Americans on the history of Juneteenth. The mural was created by Houston artist Reginald C. Adams.
Lorenz said the project and organizations like the Nia Culture Center are working hard to educate as many people as they can.
“We will continue to utilize the enthusiasm of the mural to help raise funds for local programs that are working with children to teach black history and black culture,” Lorenz said. “It’s visible, it’s colorful and it tells a story.”
Lorenz and Robinson both said that signing Juneteenth as a national holiday into law is only the beginning of telling this story, and not the end.
“This obviously was a milestone to get this holiday, but the thing we must keep in mind is to make this country a more perfect union,” Robinson said.
The Juneteenth Legacy Project will have a dedication of the mural and festival on Saturday, June 19 in Galveston to memorialize the day. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee and Sen. John Cornyn who championed the bill will be in attendance.
“Many Americans have never really looked squarely at what slavery really is and what it does to people I think it’s been glossed over, covered up, and described differently than the reality,” Lorenz said. “The utter lack of freedom is one thing, but slavery itself is inhumane and people must know that and this opens up that story.”