Juneteenth: A Moment In Time

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The date is June 19, 1865 in Galveston, Texas. General Gordon Granger is instructed to inform nearly 250,000 slaves of their potential freedom. General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston with 1,800 unionized troops to state General Order No.3: “The people of Texas are informed that in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free.” Texas was one of many states that had extended the timeline of slavery. It took the Union Army showing up in that final summer heat of the Civil War and the ratification of the 13th Amendment on December 6th, 1865 to begin the long work of justice that is the hopeful message of Juneteenth.

What is the weight of this moment of delayed realization of personal freedom in the larger context of global history? African slaves were forcibly transported to North America as early as the 1490s when the Spanish voyagers and conquestudors established a empire that would last for over 350 years on the foundation of slavery. The Atlantic slave trade displaced over 12 million African persons from 1501-1875.  The Spanish institution of slavery in Puerto Rico extended itself 10 years after Abraham Lincoln’s proclamation of freedom in the United States of America.  European whites lived in a deep rooted system of racism just as they created new nations and cultures on the backs of natives and African slaves.  This was not unique to the United States but the ideals of liberty recorded in documents such as the Declaration of Independence in 1776 seemed to foreshadow the messages of emancipation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed    – 1776 Thomas Jefferson

The first slave trade in the British colonies came as a English ship transported the first Africans to Jamestown, Virginia in 1619. It is interesting to note that John Rolfe reported the ship as “Dutch” when in reality it was English. This justification or transfer of blame from the English themselves to their Dutch counterparts shows the faults of human nature as “we the people” refuse to hold ourselves accountable for our actions. However, even in the early days of African people living and working in North America, there was always the possibility and the reality that a select few could live and work as equally and freely as their white counterparts. It is as if the truth of equality was always a light in the darkness of the lie of slavery.  

Slavery had long established a system of racism. Unfortunately, the seeds of freedom did not take root equally wherever they were planted.  Galveston, Texas was unique because it had a large population of freed slaves who sustained one another with their own free culture. Contributive factors such as religious beliefs and musical interest would give hope.  There is a unique culture that evolved out of the circumstances of African American slavery.  In areas of high slave population it was inevitable that the majority would influence the language, music, art and beliefs of the people.  This culture created by African American slaves sustained a dream of emancipation and prepared for the reality. 

 Sharing the legacy of Juneteenth in Galveston, Texas 

Galveston became a place where newly freed slaves found opportunity because Culture is a strong current in history. The people of Galveston created a culture that sustained the promise of freedom.  They were ready for the message of emancipation because they had the numbers of freed slaves in their population and they had whites who believed more in God than they did in racism. For example, the large congregation of Methodist Christians created a church for the blacks of Galveston.  The geography of Galveston as a southern port made its economy diverse and allowed for the blacks to get a job with wages.  The size of Galveston provided land for homes to be built for black residents.  Many of those homes were built so well that they still stand today.  In fact the evidence is strong that Galveston welcomed the liberation message that is celebrated every Juneteenth by the very fact that it has been celebrated annually since.  It is the oldest commemoration of the ending of slavery celebrated annually in the United States.

 Like water itself culture brings life to all people but it can also be a drowning force of destruction depending on the power and purpose behind it.  Unfortunately, the culture of racism did not cease in America with the calmness and peace of official emancipation and reconstruction.  In fact,  the unequal view of people of color was further strengthened with the increase in American power and wealth.  For example, following the Civil War were the American Indian Wars and the rise of American Industrial Imperialism.  Why has racism always existed? As human beings we are self aware of our own existence. This very blessing is the leading factor to racial bias because we are also competitive and we see ourselves in relation to others who are different.  The White European culture in America saw itself as enlightened with a destiny to “civilize” the African American, the native American, the Latin American and even the Asian and Pacific natives in Hawaii and the Philippines.  This American Imperialism based on racism and white supremacy was memorialized in Rudyard Kipling’s poem “The White Mans Burden.” The creation of this bias would cause a snowball effect that brought cultural advancements as well as cultural division.

  Is the culture based on force at all related to fear? If so, What causes fear?  Often the scarcity of resources leads to competition and the fact remains that not all places in the south after the civil war had the economic promise of Galveston.  Places like the state of Mississippi had high levels of white and black poverty and it is also in those places that the most strict black codes, violent lynching’s and voter suppression occurred over time.  When it came to poverty the poor blacks always lost out over the poor whites. The fear that poor whites would lose out to the blacks is some of what fired the reactions of violent racism to the early progress of freed people during reconstruction. 

In order for “We The People” to co-exist as a community we must be able to internalize and acknowledge both the 1619 arrival of slaves and 1776 ideals of liberty. Expanding our knowledge on both subjects, could result in resolution on this idea of fear and overreaction to the narrative that may offend us.  On the Liberal spectrum, “The People” have become displeased with opposing perspectives or the fear of harm caused by any reference to offensive history. This has resulted in the re-naming of certain corporations or statues.  For example; The Redskins, Mrs. Buttersworth, even use of certain phrases such as “whitening” on toothpaste. This cultural revision has no end point because it goes against the very imperfections in human nature and human history.  Just as individuals learn from the mistakes of their past or the shadows of their personal experience, so must society.  We name and commemorate and remember with the recognition that the narrative, while offensive at times, is only useful in the present when it is inclusive of the good, the bad, the ugly and the beautiful; the varied points of view.  On the other hand an extreme conservative fails to communicate effectively the values they hold so dear when they are consumed with angry reactions or see themselves as standing on the moral high ground. This form of conservative thought is apparent in the politics of President Trump and his supporters. One side desperately seeks inclusion for all with the risk of whitewashing reality while the other desperately fears exclusion when they perceive the liberal as a threat that dilutes their cultural heritage

So let Juneteenth remind us that it is good and necessary to commemorate and remember all of our history.  The light of our ideals is only clearly visible in contrast to the darkness of injustice.  We are imperfect humans with imperfect history always striving for a more perfect union.