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Juneteenth: A New National Holiday?

(above, Juneteenth Flag) Yes, by unanimous vote in the United States Senate, the US Congress this week authorized a new National Holiday, Juneteenth. Long celebrated by Blacks in Texas, Juneteenth commemorates June 19, 1865, the day when a Union Army General rode into Galveston and announced General Order No. 3 proclaiming freedom for the enslaved in Texas.

Of course, that date is more than 2 years after Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, which freed all the enslaved within the Confederate territories, including Texas. And it is more than two months after the surrender of Robert E. Lee at Appomattox, ending the Confederate Rebellion. And two months after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.

Some like to excuse the delays, saying news travelled slowly then. But, Pony Express only took 10 days to cross East to SF! ( Please don't try to count horses run to death, profit motive etc; yet another shameful chapter in US History.) BUT telegraph communicated instantaneously!!! So issue wasn't "delay", but, rather, "Who knew?" Forbid people to read and write, and perhaps you think you have a monopoly on information! But, EVERYONE has ears! (Could share stories of Ona "Oney" Judge, a self emancipated woman previously owned by George Washington, or Ma Bett, illiterate, who overheard conversations in MA about 1776 declarations, freed in 1773 by court, but you can Google them. ) But bottom line, choosing this date to celebrate acknowledges the role of power over truth in our history (

(Interesting aside: the 14 house Republicans who voted against the holiday cited wanting to avoid confusion, since we already celebrate Independence or Freedom Day holiday on July 4!)

The Order itself was brief:

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 personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor.

The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.

Matter of fact and lacking in generosity, the second and third sentences presumably aim to prevent the wholesale turning out of the newly freed from the only homes they had known, unschooled and illiterate by law, penniless, without food, clothing, tools or means of support or shelter, as happened in the deep South slave states.

Though beyond the scope of this essay, what transpired in Louisiana, Mississippi, North and South Carolina and Georgia at the end of the Civil War was a travesty (and NOT in the way the Lost Cause would like you to believe). Though some formerly enslaved people continued to work the lands on which they had previously toiled, particularly if the owners did not return at wars end, many others were simply ejected. (Many southern women, however, attempted to hold on to the children of those they were required to free, even petitioning courts for “guardianship”, claiming the newly emancipated parents were too impoverished and uneducated to adequately care for them!)

Thousands of Freedman flocked towards cities, sleeping in empty stables, abandoned prisons and military barracks, refugee camps, empty churches, under bridges, in caves, in holes they dug in the ground. Unsurprisingly, maintaining personal hygiene was impossible, and disease was rampant.

The streets of the South were soon littered with bodies of the formerly enslaved. A massive public health crisis, to be sure, especially since smallpox was rampant. However, there was minimal concern for the dying and dead; after all, it confirmed for many the inferiority of the race. Some went so far as to suggest that the freedmen, whose free labor was no longer available, had no place in the country. Biologically inferior and ill-suited to freedom, many argued, left unattended, they would soon become extinct!

However, there was great concern for the health and safety of the white population. Most medical care at that time was from private physicians who made house calls; hospitals were for the indigent, run by charitable groups who refused care to freedmen. So in steps the Federal government, creating the first Federal Health System, the Freedman’s Bureau Medical Division, to handle the crisis.

In keeping with public sentiment, however the priority is not the welfare of the formerly enslaved, but on keeping the cities clean enough to ensure the safety of the white population. To wit: they build hospitals, however those hospitals lack sufficient beds, linens, medication and staff. They hire physicians, including Rebecca Lee Crumpler,, the first African American woman M.D in the US, one of about 120 physicians for the 4 million newly emancipated! Physician requests, including for more resources go unheeded. In a hospital in North Carolina, when smallpox is diagnosed in several patients, lacking an isolation ward, and fearful of the disease spreading, the hospital is ordered burned to the ground.

(Blacks trained in herbal medicine, nursing, and midwifery did step up. Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler, met with virulent racism and stymied at every turn, opened a clinic and wrote and distributed a book on hygiene and basic self and child care for the newly emancipated. Blacks founded Morehouse College in 1867 and in 1868, Howard University opens a medical department for Blacks.)

But back to Juneteenth. In essence, Congress has created a holiday to honor the end of Chattel Slavery. Good. I appreciate that many have fought hard for this for years. And that a national commemoration of the end of slavery is way past overdue. But what we need is more than a commemoration, much more than a holiday. Celebrate the end of slavery, fine, but then, address the chasm between the 150-year-old promise of emancipation and full citizenship with the current status of Blacks in this country.

The irony of passing this bill at a time when Republicans in multiple states are actively passing restrictive voting laws,giving legislatures the power to overturn the popular vote, forbidding teaching of 1619 Project, Critical Race Theory, how racism or bias affect individuals and society or anything “that makes anyone feel guilt or discomfort” and are actively intent on killing HR1 Federal Voting Rights Bill HR1, is inescapable.Multiple attempts at disenfranchisement of Black voters in response to the largest turnout in history for a Presidential election are a much truer reflection of the hearts and minds of far too many than unanimous passage of a day off bill.

So this Congress choosing now to create a Juneteenth Holiday strikes me as cynical and performative. I can already hear, “We gave you a holiday, what more do you want?”

What we want is what was promised but never offered us in the founding documents of this country. The right to life, liberty, and pursuit of the happiness, unimpeded, unshackled. Take away the roadblocks to full inclusion. What we want is a reckoning of the true history of this country, from Native genocide to chattel slavery, the annexation of Northern Mexico to the Chinese exclusion act. And slavery and its legacy, given the current divide, is the place to start.

I hear some who say, “You had a Black President. What more do you want?” Or actually, I think the quote was, “We gave you a Black President….” And others who want to say, “Slavery was so long ago, get over it.” “Blacks just need to work hard like everyone else. “ “You people are always looking for a handout.”

Some want to hijack every conversation with comments like: “Why aren’t you talking about Black on Black crime?” “Why aren’t you cleaning up the ghettos?” All of which show at best ignorance of the policies that have created our current crises, and at worst, willful ignorance and depraved indifference.

We need to know our history, our true history, parts more accurately told with the 1619 Project, Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States among other sources than standard issue textbooks. Yes, many have been educating themselves over the last year, but many have not. What we need now is a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. A national reckoning with and recognition of the damage done from the generations Blacks were subjected to the forced labor camps that are plantations.

“What do you think gets passed down through generations if what was experienced were lifetimes of abuse at the hands of slave masters and other authorities? What do you think the result would be if generation after generation of young men were not allowed the power and authority to parent their own children? What do you think the result would be if education was prohibited for generations? What do you think the result would be if the primary skills that mothers teach their children are those associated with adapting to a lifetime of torture…”*

Perhaps you, like many, do not see the need for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. But let me ask you to look at the example of Germany. Do you see statues of Hitler in Germany? Do buildings in Germany fly the Flag of the German Reich (a Swastika)? Can you book wedding parties and cotillions at Auschwitz? Are schools and streets named for him and his cabinet? Then consider what Black children are subject to all over this country.

I recently watched 60 Minutes segment on Clotilda, The Last Slave Ship. The ship, smuggled 110 Africans into Alabama from the kingdom of Dahomey in West Africa in 1860, 52 years AFTER the transatlantic slave trade and importation into the US was declared illegal . A wealthy Mobile shipyard owner, steamboat captain and landowner, Irish-American Timothy Maeher, bet that he could get away with smuggling in a ship of captives. And did. He built the Clotilda (also sometimes written Clothide) for his smuggling operation, hired a captain, William Foster, and for the deed, entrusted him with about $9000 in gold to purchase captives. For a fraction of the going price stateside (average in 1860 $800), he chose 125 from a larger group in a slave fort. But as the enslaved were being loaded, 2 steamers approached, and, afraid of being caught, Foster set sail with those already secured numbering 110. The ship arrived in the Mobile River under the cover of night, the captives off loaded, the ship then sailed further up river, burned and scuttled. Though the federal government attempted to prosecute the men, lacking both the ship and the manifest, the case was dismissed for lack of evidence.

Maeher kept 30 captives, including Cudjo Kazoola Lewis, said to be the oldest on the ship, and a Chief (see Barracoon, below) and sold the remainder.

After emancipation, Cudjo Lewis and other formerly enslaved Africans hired themselves out to their former enslaver, Maeher at his sawmill, but saved their earnings, bought land, and built a town Africatown, based on Takpa tribal customs and Yoruba language and cultural traditions. As has been said, they arrived “with empty hands but not empty minds”. Africatown thrived as an independent Black community, at one time reaching a population of 12,000. Sadly, the community was folded into Mobile, became the site of toxic dumps and chemical factories, and in the 90’s, was bisected by a freeway, common fates for Black communities.

And yes, the Maeher family still lives in Mobile, still owns a good percentage of the town, has never been held to account, and not surprisingly, refuses to speak to reporters. Reparations, anyone? A nephew of the ship’s Captain, Mike Foster of Montana, discovered he was a distant cousin of the ship captain doing genealogy research. He has met with descendants of the survivors. “No, I didn’t feel guilty. I didn’t do it. But I could apologize for it,” he said.

But if we, and I mean, we as a nation (not individual Black families and communities for whom Juneteenth is personal) are to heal, we need to mark this occasion as the crack in the door for a real national reckoning, and reparations.

For additional reading:

They Were Her Property: Stephanie Jones-Rodgers

Stony the Road: Reconstruction, White Supremacy and the Rise of Jim Crow by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

Barracoon: The Story of the Last Black Cargo, by Zora Neal Hurston, written in 1931 based on interviews with Cudjo Lewis, published for the first time in 2018.

Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome: America’s Legacy of Enduring Injury and Healing by Dr. Joy DeDruy (excerpt above from pps 102-3)


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