Minnesota Humanities Center

Celebrating Juneteenth by Finishing the Work

Posted June 19, 2020

A new movement has begun to recognize Juneteenth as a national holiday.

Proponents stress the need for America never to forget how racial slavery has been imprinted upon the soul of the nation and to always remember how the descendants of enslaved African Americans continue to shape its present and future.

The death of George Floyd has alerted many white Americans to learn about the celebration known as Juneteenth. Businesses, in an effort to show solidarity with the fight for racial justice and equality for African Americans, are beginning to recognize the day as a holiday.

Conversations—about Juneteenth, the period of reconstruction after the Civil War, and how many of the vestiges frustrating the rights of African Americans still remain present today—are long overdue.

Juneteenth marks Union General Gordon Granger arrival in Texas on June 19, 1865, to issue an order that, pursuant to the emancipation proclamation, slavery was no longer the law and that all individuals who had been enslaved were free.

The historical context of Juneteenth is that for the following century and a half the freedom, justice, and equality promised to African Americans after the Civil War was far too often deferred, delayed, and denied. The African American community celebrates Juneteenth to honor the resilience and perseverance of our ancestors.

News of emancipation in the former confederate states was often suppressed and met with violence. Historian James Smallwood notes that many former slaveowners withheld this information until after the fall harvest, and that several slaveholders resorted to violence, including lynching, to frustrate the inalienable rights of African Americans.

Moreover, the period of reconstruction after the Civil War was marked with efforts to inhibit access to the ballot box and to use peonage and the criminal justice system to financially exploit African Americans and enslave them.

Several states unwilling to see African Americans being given the right to vote amended their state constitutions to explicitly preclude them from voting by imposing poll taxes, literacy tests, and even jellybean jar counting tests.

In many instances, African Americans with no means to enforce being fairly compensated for their labor became indebted to planters (through sharecropping loans), merchants (through credit), or company stores (living expenses). As a result, many African Americans were unable to repay their debt and found themselves in a cycle of continuous work without pay.

African American men were also arrested on bogus charges and for minor offenses such as loitering. When they were unable to pay staggering fines and court fees, the court system would force these individuals to go work for local business owners who would pay their fines in exchange for the free labor.

There are clear parallels to many of the issues being discussed by present day reformers – the right to vote, equal pay, payday lending loans, prison labor, and criminal justice reform.

Let us therefore hope that this is the beginning of America explicitly taking time together to consider the legacy of slavery, identify the work that remains undone, and move beyond empathy to action in creating a more just and inclusive nation for all.

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By: Kevin Lindsey

Kevin Lindsey is CEO of the Minnesota Humanities Center.