Northwestern University and The Family Institute have joined the U.S federal government in recognizing Juneteenth as a holiday. Northwestern University describes the day as an “opportunity for members of the University community to reflect on the significance of June 19, 1865, when some of the last enslaved African Americans in Texas learned the Civil War had ended.” This was the day that the Emancipation Proclamation, issued by President Abraham Lincoln more than two years earlier, was put into effect in Galveston, Texas. It is noteworthy that this moment occurred in the context of occupation of Texas by Union troops and by the explicit order of the general in charge of that occupation.
Serious students of history must confront the facts and sequalae of injustice and inhumanity. In addition to the celebratory aspects of a Juneteenth holiday, we are called to consider the impact of history on the present and the importance of recognizing and addressing systemic racism in the present. Juneteenth comes and goes each year, but the struggle for equity and inclusion is ongoing work that is punctuated, and hopefully advanced, by the celebrations and discussions that occurred on the holiday.
Annette Gordon-Reed, Professor of Law and History at Harvard, Pulitzer Prize and National Book award recipient, and author of “On Juneteenth,” in a guest essay in the New York Times discussed the relationship between Juneteenth and July 4th. The 4th of July holiday commemorates the signing of the Declaration of Independence that established the commitment of the colonies to be free from England, but within the text of the declaration it was stated that, “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.” This value was seriously at odds with the institution of slavery then, as it is now at odds with current-day injustices and inequities. The prose of the Declaration can be interpreted as a call for justice. In the words of Annette Gordon Reed, “It may be hard for some to do this in our fractious times, but both holidays should be used to reflect upon the common value that Juneteenth and the Fourth have come to express: the recognition of the equal humanity and dignity of people the world over.”
Gordon-Reed, A. (2021). Between Juneteenth and the Fourth of July. New York Times, July 4th.
Gordon-Reed, A. (2021). On Juneteenth.
Declaration of Independence
Juneteenth: The History of a Holiday (New York Times)