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We must teach the next generation

Portrait of Opal Lee

Jeanette Harris declares Juneteenth’s historical significance and how we must use it to educate and reflect on the continuing fight for justice and equality.

Detroit: Metropolitan UMC

These reflections are painful. How do I share the joy and jubilation that Freedom Day, the real independence day for African Americans, is now a national holiday? July 4 is widely known as Independence Day. We sing, we barbecue, we pray. We wave the flag, usually the right side up. Many of us do not know that in 1852, the great orator Frederick Douglass asked, “What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July?” To the enslaved population of the United States, it was just another day as someone’s property, while White America celebrated freedom from British rule. June 19 represents Freedom Day for Black Americans. Somehow, this significance is missed in most of our history books. How could so many of us not know about Juneteenth?

My reflections on this day have been fraught with gratitude that I am here, a retired bureaucrat and not “the help.” I can vote without looking over my shoulder or being hampered by a poll tax or an impossible literacy test. Tempering these thoughts is the reality that we do not live in a society that will judge the content of my character before judging me by the melanin in my skin. We must teach Black children how to behave when the police stop them. We must work to undo the damage that is being caused by the reversal of the rights gained by the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The above is my preamble. I now write to declare the significance of Juneteenth: How we got there and what we must do to honor the legacy of those who came before us. Every good story needs a soundtrack, and here is mine — Clara Ward’s “How I Got Over,” sung famously by Mahalia Jackson at the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963. (Click here to listen to a live recording.)

“How I got over / How I got over / My soul looks back and wonders / how I got over.”

Getting Over Literally

Africans started coming over in 1619, chained together like cattle in the bottom of slave ships, sailing across the wide, blue Atlantic from ports in West Africa. In Accra, Ghana, you can still see the “gate of no return,” where the slaves were kept. You can catch your breath and climb up to look out over the Atlantic, and you will see the tops of churches overlooking the port.

That’s how my ancestors got over. They didn’t smuggle across the border seeking better opportunities for their families or arrive at the New York City harbor in steerage class. No! They got packed head-to-toe in slave ships to become someone’s property, someone else instruments for wealth creation. When we don’t want to see the humanity in people, we call them names, dehumanize them, or wave around the New Testament right side up, saying God said this is the order of things. The slaves were not seen as humans but as work animals to be branded, used, sold, and discarded when no longer useful. We, their descendants, survived the boat ride over and mostly remained in bondage for another 250 years.

Looking Back on June 19, 1865

One hot day in Galveston, Texas, Union General Gordon Granger stepped ashore to read General Order, No. 3, which declared that all slaves in the Confederacy were now free.

Local newspapers printed the proclamation the next day:

The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, “all slaves are free.” This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes, and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts, and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.

What? Hold up! Wasn’t the Emancipation Proclamation issued in 1863, two and a half years earlier, freeing all the slaves in the Confederacy? Well, there is the law, and then there is enforcement of the law. It took two and a half years for the Union Army to get to Texas to begin enforcing the law. In the interim, Confederate families fled and took approximately 20,000 of their slaves with them in resistance to the law. But on June 19, 1865, the 250,000 enslaved people in Texas got the word that they were free — free to return to the plantations and work for wages. So, how do you think that worked out? At another time, we can reflect on the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which outlawed most forms of slavery in December 1865.

Remembering June 19th’s Legacy

Opal Lee, a 97-year-old Black woman, is known as the “Grandmother of Juneteenth.” A native of Texas and the granddaughter of slaves, she was taught the history of Juneteenth and worked tirelessly to let the citizens of the United States know about this day’s legacy. For years, she walked two and a half miles each day to symbolize the two and a half years that it took for Texas slaves to be free.

Curiously enough, when she was just 12, Lee’s childhood home in Fort Worth, Texas, was burned down, and an angry White mob forced her family out. Undaunted, she grew up, became a teacher, and educated the country on the significance of Juneteenth. She was by President Joe Biden’s side on June 17, 2021, when the bill was signed, creating June 19 as a federal holiday. Today, her portrait hangs in the National Portrait Gallery at the Smithsonian as a witness to the fact that ordinary people of any age can make a difference.

Opal’s lifelong fight to establish Juneteenth as a holiday and to let all Americans know what June 19 represents is a reminder that racial progress is not linear, and we must never forget the history of enslaved people.

After President Abraham Lincoln declared the Emancipation Proclamation, the country saw the proliferation of Jim Crow laws to ensure that slaves and slave descendants were not treated as full American citizens. More than 2,000 Black men were lynched at public gatherings as mob justice provided a threat to other Black people. Can you imagine postcards of dead men sent out as souvenirs? Yes, I missed that in my history book, too.

Never Forgetting

I attended both inaugurations of President Barack Obama. I had no illusion that freedom would ring out from Galveston to Stone Mountain to Memphis and Tallahassee. Just as backlash and the rise of White supremacy followed the end of slavery, we are watching a new era of that movement in the 21st Century. Equality of status feels like a loss of status to some Americans.

Juneteenth must stand as a powerful reminder of the long struggle toward freedom and equality in the United States. On Juneteenth, we celebrate African American culture. But we must use it to educate and reflect on the continuing fight for justice and equality. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., reminds us: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” May it be so!

Last Updated on June 24, 2024

The Michigan Conference