Juneteenth Celebrates Black Americans’ Resistance and Resiliency

Three questions with Diane Mutti-Burke, professor and chair of History

June 19 is celebrated throughout the United States as Juneteenth, commemorating the end of slavery in this country. Diane Mutti-Burke, professor and chair of the Department of History, is a historian of the American South and the Civil War with a particular interest in the history of slavery, women and the Missouri/Kansas border region. She discussed the history, meaning and the importance of Juneteenth.

Juneteenth recognizes a specific event in Galveston, Texas – the notification of Black people there that slavery had ended. Why is it considered a national holiday?

The Juneteenth holiday celebrates the official end of slavery in the state of Texas on June 19, 1865. President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, but it did not immediately free any enslaved people. The order explicitly did not apply to border states like Missouri or areas of the South already under the Union army’s control. Although the Civil War formally ended on April 9, 1865 when Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox, there were still Confederate forces in the field, including in the West.

Texas had remained relatively protected during the war because of its great distance from the fighting. This geographic isolation created a situation in which many enslaved Texans were unaware of the end of the war or their freedom. Union troops finally entered the state in early June 1865, and in Galveston on June 19, Major General Gordon Granger issued General Order No. 3, an emancipation order informing people of their freedom. Since the Emancipation Proclamation was a wartime military order, Abraham Lincoln and Congressional Republicans decided a constitutional amendment was necessary to permanently secure people’s freedom. The Thirteenth Amendment was ratified on December 6, 1865, legally ending slavery in the United States.

In the decades after the Civil War, African American communities throughout the U.S. organized Emancipation Day celebrations to commemorate their liberation from slavery. Many celebrated on January 1, the date of the Emancipation Proclamation, but in some states, they commemorated dates that were specific to their location, such as June 19 in Texas, known as “Juneteenth.” Juneteenth became a Texas state holiday in 1979. Black Texans migrated to other parts of the United States, bringing the Juneteenth celebration to their new communities. In recent years, Juneteenth has become an informal national holiday celebrating African American heritage throughout the United States.

“Juneteenth allows us to celebrate Black Americans’ resistance and resiliency as they fought – and continue to fight – to rectify four centuries of racial discrimination and economic and social injustice.” Diane Mutti-Burke

What can you tell us about how emancipation took place in this region? 

When most Americans think about emancipation they focus on the legal or military acts that occurred on specific dates, such as Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation or the Thirteenth Amendment. I would encourage people instead to think about emancipation as a process – one that was as much driven by enslaved people themselves as it was by white emancipators.  

Missouri’s border location and politically divided population (with white Missourians supporting both the Union and the Confederacy) resulted in a violent armed conflict between Union military forces and Confederate guerrillas, which actively engaged the civilian population.  Many of Missouri’s 115,000 enslaved people took advantage of the chaos of the state’s internal civil war and struck a blow for their own freedom, running away to nearby Union military encampments or to the bordering free states of Kansas, Illinois, and Iowa. Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation explicitly did not apply to the border states. But over time, enslaved men, women and children continued to flood into Union military camps, forcing officers to increase protections for those who sought their aid and eventually to authorize their freedom. Many recognized that Black Missourians greatly aided the Union war effort through their labor and the information that they provided about the activities of secessionists and guerrillas, many of whom were their former owners. 

Eventually, the Union army enlisted Black men to fight and Missouri men joined in large numbers.  Black men fully understood that their enlistment would ensure their freedom and might result in the freedom of their family members as well.

On January 11, 1865, Missouri’s Republican-controlled state Constitutional Convention freed enslaved people in the state through an emancipation ordinance, which predated the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment by three weeks.

What are the important lessons that Americans should take from the Juneteenth celebration?

The Juneteenth holiday provides a wonderful opportunity for both reflection and celebration.  The commemoration allows Americans to reflect on the United States’ long and tragic history of slavery, segregation, racial injustice and systemic inequality. It is important that we learn about and reckon with the many painful and destructive legacies of this devastating history and how it affects us still today.

This is an uncomfortable and difficult history to process and study but it is imperative that we wrestle with it. Too often people respond to issues of race as being outdated and irrelevant because slavery and legal segregation ended “so long ago,” but understanding the legacies of slavery, white supremacy and the challenges and pain that the Black community continues to encounter in the face of ongoing systemic racism and inequalities illustrate the importance of this history. At the same time, Juneteenth allows us to celebrate Black Americans’ resistance and resiliency as they fought – and continue to fight – to rectify four centuries of racial discrimination and economic and social injustice. Equally essential, the Juneteenth holiday provides a venue to acknowledge, appreciate and celebrate the profound contributions that Black Americans have made to the economic, social, political and cultural foundations of the United States.

I encourage everyone to spend today in contemplation and celebration of the long history of the Black freedom struggle and the central role that Black Americans have played in building this nation, while also reflecting on how much farther we must travel along the road toward justice and equality in order to achieve America’s promise of a more perfect union. 

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Published: Jun 19, 2020

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