Juneteenth: A Worthy Holiday, but the Wrong Date and Name

This past week the U.S. Congress quickly passed, and President Biden signed, a law to establish June 19 as “Juneteenth Independence Day”, a new Federal holiday.  As you’ve probably heard, it commemorates the issuance of an order by Union General Gordon Granger in Galveston, Texas on June 19, 1865, making known President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, issued nearly two and a half years earlier, to all those in Texas who had not yet heard of it, in particular to the enslaved.

On the one hand, I believe that it’s very appropriate for our nation to have a holiday to mark the end of slavery.  Slavery was our “original sin” and the root cause of our greatest trial, the Civil War, and its after-effects are still felt today.  If having a national holiday commemorating slavery’s abolition contributes to our racial reckoning as a nation, that can be a good thing.

On the other hand, from a historical perspective, I believe that they got both the date and the name wrong!

First, the date.  Over the past several years, I as “Mr. Lincoln” have participated in two or three Juneteenth observances each year.  In nearly every instance, a historical inaccuracy has been proclaimed which I have attempted to correct, to little or no avail.  The inaccuracy stubbornly persists with the announcement of the new Federal holiday as well as similar state and local holidays.  Read any article about it, and it will contain a statement such as:

“The United States will soon have a new federal holiday commemorating the end of slavery in the nation … Juneteenth commemorates when the last enslaved African Americans learned they were free.” (Fox News); or

“June 19 marks the date that news of the Confederate surrender reached the last enslaved Black people.” (People)

And the Encyclopaedia Britannica describes Juneteenth as a “holiday commemorating the end of slavery in the United States, observed annually on June 19”.

We are being told over and over again that slavery in the United States ended on June 19, 1865, and that Juneteenth is therefore the most appropriate date on which to celebrate that event.  The problem?  Slavery did not end on June 19, 1865, not any more than the Civil War ended when General Lee surrendered to General Grant on April 9 of that year (it didn’t)!

I would challenge anyone who believes that slavery ended on June 19, 1865 to travel back in time to that date to Kentucky or Delaware.  Tell the 225,000 enslaved people in Kentucky and the 2,000 in Delaware that they were now free, and they would laugh in your face.  And a slave owner would likely shoot you on the spot for spreading such a lie.

The fact is that slavery would still be perfectly legal for another six months in Kentucky and Delaware, as well as in parts of other states.  This is because President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation did not apply to the border states, the four slave states which were still loyal to the Union, nor to all or part of those Confederate states under control of the Union army at the time, most notably Tennessee and large parts of Louisiana and Virginia.

The Lincoln administration was encouraging the border states to voluntarily abolish slavery, something Maryland would do in November 1864 and Missouri in January 1865.  But as of June 19, 1865 – “Juneteenth” – neither Delaware nor Kentucky had abolished slavery and as a result it was still legal in those states.

The actual end of slavery came with the adoption of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution.  This was passed by Congress on January 31, 1865, ratified by the requisite 3/4 of the states (27 of 36) by December 6 of that year, and formally proclaimed by Congress on December 18.  Therefore, any of those dates would be a more historically relevant and accurate date on which to celebrate the end of slavery.  But, of course, January and December are no match for June when it comes to picnics, parades, and pool parties.

Another good date would be April 16, marking the date in 1862 when slavery was abolished in Washington, DC, the first step toward abolishing slavery nationwide.  In fact, April 16 has been a local holiday in the nation’s capital (“Emancipation Day”) since 2005.  Now Washingtonians will get to celebrate the end of slavery twice each year!

The choice of any of these other dates as the date to commemorate the end of slavery would also serve to remind people that the normal means for making laws in our democratic republic is by the people expressing their will through Congress and their state legislatures or conventions.  The choice of “Juneteenth” instead reinforces the false impression, already prevalent given our modern Presidents’ penchant for issuing executive orders, that orders and proclamations are the normal means for making laws.

But if it is to be a proclamation or order, why not those associated with the Emancipation Proclamation, for General Granger’s order means nothing without the original proclamation.  In fact, starting in 1863, Gallia County, Ohio has observed the oldest continual celebration of the end of slavery on September 22 of each year, the date of Lincoln’s preliminary proclamation.  And black churches have long held “Watch Night” services on New Year’s Eve, in remembrance of enslaved people staying up all night to watch and pray that Lincoln would indeed sign the final proclamation on January 1 (he would).

I think Juneteenth is a fine holiday for the state of Texas.  But as even Chicago Tribune columnist Dahleen Glanton recently acknowledged: “There is no historical reason to make June 19 a federal holiday or even a state holiday anywhere other than in Texas.”  This is especially true when it turns out that other former Confederate states already have their own holidays based on when their own enslaved populations learned of their freedom: May 8 in Mississippi, May 20 in Florida, etc.

Besides, if Texas gets a national holiday, shouldn’t every other state get to propose one, too?  Why, for example, should not Casimir Pulaski Day, celebrated on the first Monday in March in Illinois, become a Federal holiday?  Aren’t there people of Polish descent in all fifty states?

Enough about the date; what about the name?  I find “Juneteenth Independence Day” to be misleading and confusing.  Did the former slaves in Texas become “independent” on June 19?  They were liberated from bondage and gained their freedom, but they most certainly did not become independent.  Both Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and General Granger’s order advised them to become hired labor, to work for wages.  As any employee knows, he or she is not independent, but rather dependent on an employer for his or her income.  Furthermore, as the former slaves knew very well, they were also dependent on the Federal government and the military to protect them, to maintain their freedom.

“Juneteenth Independence Day” is a misnomer at best, and a cynical attempt to create division rather than unity at worst, for it encourages the idea that different groups have to have their own holidays.  Why not call it “Juneteenth National Freedom Day”, like many states do, or “Juneteenth Emancipation Day”?

Otherwise, why not have “Hispanic Independence Day”, too?  I would suggest May 5 – “el cinco de mayo” – which although it took place in another country (Mexico), at least was directly related to an attempt to maintain national independence (from France).  And then we’d also need “Asian-American Independence Day” and so on.  Wouldn’t that be a wonderful way to fulfill our motto of “E pluribus unum”, “Out of many, one”?

In conclusion: our new Federal holiday is a worthy one, but they could have chosen a better date and a better name.  But is it any wonder that inaccuracies about our history abound, given the de-emphasis on teaching history in our schools, along with our tendency to sacrifice historical accuracy on the altar of political expedience?

And how’s this for irony?  Senator John Cornyn of Texas, one of the co-sponsors of the Juneteenth bill, said this about its passage: “It seems to me that this is the most propitious time for us to recognize our history and learn from it”.  How ironic that a historically inaccurate name and a historically inaccurate date were chosen in order to “teach us our history”.  Be careful what you “learn” from politicians, the media, and social activists.  We’ll be better off learning history on our own, thank you.

Kevin J. Wood

June 19, 2021