This week on the 19th of June or “Juneteenth” will be celebrated by thousands if not millions of African Americans, Native Americans and others nationally and internationally.¬† This day will mark 150 years of emancipation from the horrific, dehumanizing American legal institution of slavery.¬† For that matter, Juneteenth is synonymous with America’s Independence Day, finally freedom.
When we take a deeper look into America’s history over the fast approaching 400 years (1619-present), it reveals that as a nation we are still searching for true identity. An identity that is all-inclusive, not one which continues to alienate itself while the world is becoming even more diverse. An America that continues to hold on to many bad habits from the past will fail to convince the world the (true) sprit and meaning of democracy. Nevertheless, a greater understanding and recognition for Africans in America, their continued struggles, contributions and hope could finally help eliminate the ignorance about a people who continue to excel and influence the world.
The following events will help to explain why many recognize the Juneteenth as the 2nd American Independence Day. Beginning with the more than 200 years of operating of the Middle Passage during the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade to North America, the dehumanization of real people (the 3/5 compromise) and the mental, physical, psychological, spiritual and economic manipulations. It was against the law to teach a black person to read or write, so from an educational point of view, the slave was destined for failure under this system. The country divided the Union and the Confederacy with the question of slavery and economics at the helm.
Next, we must realize in order to end slavery, many brave, caring and understanding Whites had to lead the charge for change, including many who lost their lives. The anti-slavery movement helped lay the groundwork for the Underground Railroad. There again, without the help of Whites, escapes would have never been possible at the time. It has been estimated that some 75,000 slaves escaped as a result of the Underground Railroad. The Underground Railroad was unofficially an important means for early emancipation for African American slaves.
During the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln contemplated the issue to save the Union or abolish Slavery. Hence, Fredrick Douglass later argues that slavery was the true cause of the War and that therefore the Union’s War should be abolition. Douglass campaigned for the recruitment of slaves and free blacks into the Union Army. His two sons were the first volunteers in the all-black regiments formed in Massachusetts. By 1865 there were 300,000 black slaves and black free men in the Union Army. The massive all black regiment in the Union’s Army contributed greatly to the surrender of General Robert E. Lee and the Confederate Army, in April 1865. The all-black regiment was instrumental in the ending of the Civil War. They helped to save the Union and contribute to the abolition of African Americans in slavery.
Acting under his wartime powers, President Abraham Lincoln declared free only those slaves in rebel-held territory. However, President Lincoln calls the Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863 the “central act” of his administration and the “greatest event of the 19th Century”. Few were actually freed by this act; the majority were emancipated with the Thirteenth Amendment, passed January, 1865.
Union Army Major General Gordon Granger along with 2,000 Union Army Troops arrived on the island of Galveston, Texas on June 19, 1865. Granger announced that the Civil War had ended and that all slaves were free. In addition, Grander read General Order No. 3. This document enforced President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, emancipating the remaining 250,000 slaves in Texas and bordering states. The emancipation proclamation that had gone into affect two and one-half years earlier. Immediately following the announcement slaves threw off their shackles, danced, sang and prayed, all joining in a chorus of freedom. A newly restored nation pledged to live up to its most noble goals of liberty and justice for all. We must continue to work together to ensure that all citizens will be treated fairly and equally. Only then can we say that we have fulfilled the promise that was made on June 19, 1865 (Juneteenth).
“It’s our holiday, blacks have been celebrating the Fourth of July, but we were slaves when the United States got independence. We were still in the fields and in shackles and still considered chattel and were not independent,” once remarked Texas State Representative Al Edwards who proposed making Juneteenth a state holiday. In 1979 the state legislature debated the measure. Since 1980, Juneteenth has been a holiday for Texas State workers. With Texas roots, the holiday has spread acorss the county and is celebrated in over 225 cities.
I have lived in Santa Monica for the past 58 years. I have served on two City of Santa Monica Commissions for 20 years.
My family and I brought the spirit of Juneteenth to Santa Monica. In 1992 I founded the Juneteenth Celebration Committee Celebration Inc. (JCCI), a non-profit organization based in Santa Monica. The JCCI presents an Annual Juneteenth Celebration in the Virginia Avenue Park. It promotes the African diaspora, cultural awareness, build coalitions and recognize the underrepresented students with scholarships.
Over the past twenty-three years, there are many memories I have from our celebrations with the people of Santa Monica and surrounding areas. All the wonderful people who have helped make this holiday a success, have given me strength to continue this labor of love. The volunteers, vendors, artists, grounds people, law enforcement, staff and many others have contributed to this event. MY family and friends have also contributed greatly. However, the most impressive and heartwarming gesture came when the City and the City Council proclaimed the third week of June as “Juneteenth Week”.
So, Jan.¬†1 and June 19 each year we recognize the end of one era and the beginning of another, the Emancipation Proclamation and the Juneteenth Celebration. With that, we have the opportunity to be, as the old Negro spiritual says, “Free at last, free at last, and thank God Almighty we’re free at last.”
The 23rd anniversary of Juneteenth in Santa Monica will be celebrated at the Virginia Avenue Park from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
La Verne Ross is the Founder, CEO and President of the Juneteenth Celebration Committee. Abdul-Salaam Muhammad contributed to this story.