By Sheila Johnson
Many years ago, I was asked to give a speech to a group scheduled to meet in Richmond at some point in the middle of June. They were meeting in the Virginia state capitol to celebrate what one of them explained to me on the phone was called Juneteenth.
Scout’s honor, back then I’d never even heard of Juneteenth.
So, what did I do? Following our phone call, I did what any student of history would do under the circumstance. I rolled up my sleeves, I sat down at my computer, and I started researching. I read, in fact, just about everything I could find about this day I’d never heard about – this day I was told was called Juneteenth – including its history and its very first celebration back in June of 1865.
What I found in all that reading is something I’ll share with you in a moment. But first, let’s get to the news of the day.
President Biden has returned to the Oval Office from his travels to Europe. His very first order of business was to sign into law an act passed in both houses of congress declaring Juneteenth a federal holiday. June 19 will be, moving forward, a holiday celebrating the day African Americans were freed from the bonds of slavery.
Only, here’s the problem – and this is what I discovered in all that reading so many years ago: June 19, 1865, was not the day our ancestors were technically freed. America’s slaves were freed – and the slavery that kept them indentured servants, if not personal property, outlawed – the day that Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.
And when did President Lincoln sign this so-called Emancipation Proclamation?
January 1, 1863.
When Juneteenth happened, and the slaves in and around Galveston, Texas were informed by a federal agent that they were now free men and women – it was some two and a half years after the Great Emancipator officially declared them so. It’s just that, with that pesky Civil War going on, no one got around to actually telling them.
That didn’t stop their celebration, of course, nor should it have. The party was held, and it was grand. The people donned their Sunday best and the ladies their fanciest hats. And because it was June – in the middle of strawberry season, in other words – many of those same ladies went home and made their finest strawberry deserts for the celebration, including strawberry shortcake, bowls of fresh-cut strawberries and strawberry soda pop.
But this is what I said to that group in Richmond so many years ago. That it is our right, if not our duty, to celebrate black culture and black history – and that Juneteenth is the very embodiment of those things, especially because it traces back to the Deep South.
Yet, at the same time, we as African Americans must demand more. We cannot be okay with the fact that a number of our ancestors spent over two years in servitude because it took a team of bureaucrats that amount of time to get around to informing them that they were no longer property, but people. They were now free men and women, and as such, were American citizens.
I suppose, this is my message to you today. Yes, Juneteenth – in what seems like a flash – has catapulted itself into our national consciousness and, in a matter of a few days, will become a federal holiday, on par with Veterans Day, Memorial Day, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.
Juneteenth will become a reason for all of us to stop and reflect on how far we’ve come as a nation.
But make no mistake, it will also become a day for all good men and women – black and white –to reflect on just how very far we still have to go. A big part of this magnificent country of ours has to be willing to come to grips with some of the darker truths in our past and to acknowledge America’s – let’s be honest – racist history.
Meanwhile, another significant portion – African Americans like me and maybe even you – have to demand more of ourselves and our children. We have to stop accepting society’s table scraps, and we have to stop being content with “good enough.”
As African Americans, let’s please try to breathe life once again into what made this country what it is today, something that once guided our people but something that seems to have fallen by the wayside these past few decades: American exceptionalism.
So, this Saturday – the first time in history Juneteenth will be an actual federal holiday – I urge all of you to both celebrate and reflect. Because, believe me, as a country – and as a society – America is still very much a work in progress and we, as Americans, if not children of God, are still on the path to what promises to be a better, kinder and more enlightened future.
But only if we’re honest with – and demand more of – ourselves.
God bless. Eat and live well, and, as always, stay safe.