For full disclosure, we can’t honestly say we knew a whole lot about Juneteenth, a celebration that commemorates the emancipation of the slaves following the end of the Civil War, prior to a couple weeks ago. We had heard of it, were vaguely aware of what it was about and perceived it in passing to be primarily an African American observance.
But that shallow depth of understanding should tell us a lot, as well as serve as a reminder that the working knowledge of our own history could always stand some appending.
This was evident last week as the nation recognized Juneteenth in a way it really never had before. Spurred by recent social unrest that was unleashed anew with the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis last month, this year’s Juneteenth celebration, held last Friday, took on a more urgent importance. Governors issued proclamations honoring the day, and this included South Dakota, where Gov. Kristi Noem issued such a decree on the afternoon of June 18, which was better later than never.
But we should also note that none of the calendars in the Press & Dakotan office mention the Juneteenth holiday (although many list Quebec National Day on June 24), which also tells you the incompleteness of our understanding.
Juneteenth honors the day — June 19, 1865 —— a decree was read by the commander of U.S. Army troops at Galveston Island in Texas declaring that all slaves in the formerly rebellious state were free. It stands, then, as the technical pronouncement of emancipation, a declaration of freedom for a people who were a main focus of the Civil War but who are often relegated to secondary players in our histories of that war.
The decree came two months after the Civil War is widely acknowledged to have ended with Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House, Virginia. Clearly, that event didn’t free all slaves everywhere. In fact, after the declaration announcing “all slaves are free” was read by Major Gen. Gordon Granger at the Texas site in June, months of resistance and fighting followed, and former slaves were reportedly still being killed by Texans for three more years. The cause for which so many fought and died could not be wrapped up with a stroke of a pen or the reading of an order. It took years, even decades — from the Jim Crow laws through the Civil Rights Act — before the anti-slavery victory was fully confirmed.
The fact that so many of us know so little about it is unfortunate. Among other things, it reflects the overall priorities and perspectives of our history curricula, at least in years past. This crucial aspect of our past was never given the due it deserved.
Should Juneteenth become a federal holiday, as some Senate Democrats are now proposing? It’s an interesting debate, and we’re not sure where lawmakers should fall on that.
But we are sure that the commemoration of Juneteenth in some form can serve as a valuable learning experience about this nation and its racial struggles. It can help us better understand what kind of nation truly emerged from that Civil War.
If a more formal recognition of Juneteenth can steer us toward that goal, then we should welcome it. This is a vital chapter of the American story — one we all need to know.