Reflections on Juneteenth
June 17, 2021
By Natalie Shaak, Operations Manager
For many of us who identify as white, June 19 has come and gone as just another day for most of our lives. Only recently has its identity as Juneteenth been brought to our attention. I, for one, am embarrassed by my lack of understanding of the day or much of the true history of slavery until the past few years of my life.
The American history taught to most kids in school skims over and whitewashes the history of slavery and discrimination in our country. Many of the important lessons are lost by trying to tone down the legacy of hate, violence, murder, discrimination, and other harms committed by our ancestors. As a white allies, we need to make a concerted effort to seek the truth of our history, come to terms with it, and pledge to do better moving forward.
What is Juneteenth? Why is June 19 important?
June 19, also known as Juneteenth or Emancipation Day, is a day celebrating freedom. It was on that day in 1865 that Union soldiers finally arrived in Galveston, Texas, to announce the end of the Civil War and slavery.
In our world of instant access to knowledge through the internet, cell phones, and world wide media coverage, it may be hard to believe it could take more than two years for the news of the war ending and the Emancipation Proclamation to make it across the whole country. It seems like it was not as much of a priority to give all people their freedom. It is heartbreaking to know that humans were forced to remain in slavery for two more years than they should have been because it took that long to get the word there. The trauma, violence, and death experienced during that time can never be undone.
When we celebrate on the Fourth of July in a few weeks, we have to remember that day in 1776 did not grant freedom to all residents of this country. For more than a century after that, men and women of African decent were not free - they were slaves. June 19 is a true Independence Day for a huge portion of the U.S. population - those who’s ancestors were kidnapped and forced to come to this country to be subservient to others, based solely on their country of birth and color of their skin.
While Juneteenth represents freedom from slavery for many African Americans, we must also remember they still faced extreme racism, discrimination, exclusion, and violence because of the color of their skin after that day. African Americans did not receive official US citizenship until 3 years after slavery was ended. It wasn’t until 1915, that many African Americans were granted the legal right to vote by removing “grandfather clauses” from state rules. Yet poll taxes and literacy tests continued up until the 1960s to keep people of color from voting. Despite having their “freedom” from slavery one hundred years earlier, they were not granted the full rights and privileges of citizenship till much later and in fact to this day, they are not truly free to live a safe and happy life free from the shackles of racism and legacy of slavery.
How to Honor Juneteenth as a White Ally
While not everyone will have off work in recognition of Juneteenth, it is important that we take time on Saturday to acknowledge the holiday and what it represents. As allies, families, and friends it is our duty to use the day to focus on freedom for all by:
Educating Ourselves and Others
Most importantly, to truly be allies, we need to educate ourselves on the true history of America and the racism and discrimination on which most of our country’s growth is based. We need to learn about the Black leaders and minds that never made it into our high school history, literature, art, and music classes and celebrate their contributions to our world. We need to share what we learn with those around us - educate our children especially on the things we were never exposed to so we can continue to grow and not repeat past mistakes.