June has always been a month defined by memorable dates for me: my birthday, Father's Day, the start of summer, and Juneteenth. Each of these days gives me the time to celebrate and reflect on who and what matters most to me as an individual, as a daughter, and as a black American. This year, that time of observance coincides with the heartbreaking tragedy in Orlando, and the hateful rhetoric of Donald Trump. The ability to find joy in a world so full of loss and hate requires the sort of strength and persistence that inspired my ancestors to celebrate Juneteenth, which commemorates the end of slavery in the U.S.
The celebration of Juneteenth dates back to 1865 when Union forces arrived in Galveston, Texas announcing that the Civil War was over and that slaves were free, nearly three years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed. The delay of this news was the result of a limited Union presence in Texas to enforce President Lincoln's Executive Order. Because of this, many slaves, although technically free, remained unaware of their rights and were subjected to further exploitation and violence by the hands of their owners.
"What people don't understand is that freedom came in stages, first under the Emancipation Proclamation, which initially freed enslaved people only in the rebelling territories and later, all bondspeople," says Cynthia Greenlee, an independent scholar of the legal history of black Americans. In many remote places, according to Greenlee, slave owners purposely withheld the news from their slaves.
Even after hearing the news of the Emancipation, former slaves still struggled to claim their rights. Throughout Texas and other territories, claiming one's freedom was a radical and life-threatening act. "Enslaved people didn't just gain their freedom papers by law. They seized their own freedom by walking off plantations, either temporarily or running away permanently; slowing down work or acts of sabotage; sometimes physical struggle with whites; challenging their enslavement in court; and many acts of individual agency that, taken together, hastened the fall of slavery," she explains.
Despite the dismal fact that we still live in a profoundly racist society, we must take the time to celebrate the changes that we have made as a nation and the people who've led us towards progress. Greenlee explains that black women have always been the backbone of anti-racist political movements in the U.S.:
"Then as in now, black women were in the vanguard of organizing...black women were determined to take part in politics, even when the legal system and gender bias blocked their formal participation. Women camped out at polls where they could not vote and where recently enfranchised black men would be turned away. And they took part in Emancipation Day ceremonies, sometimes literally taking to the streets in parades with black male militias; organized early 20th-century church-based commemorations in where they read the Emancipation Proclamation or made patriotic speeches; and cooked the food at the festivities. They were behind the scenes, in the streets and sometimes in the pulpit, organizing and theorizing how to have influence if they didn't have hard power."
That same Juneteenth spirit of rebellion and resistance lives on in current movements like #BlackLivesMatter, which was started by three black women, Patrisse Cullors, Opal Tometi, and Alicia Garza, to protest the murder of Trayvon Martin. Kerri Greenidge of Tufts University's Center for the Study of Race and Democracy reminds us that there are still insights to be gleaned from Juneteenth. "The lesson that we can all learn as Americans…is that freedom and equality are a process that the people who are oppressed have to claim for themselves, that people in power will never give that up to the people who are not. They have to reclaim it and take a stand on their own terms."