Let Juneteenth Be Juneteenth

Slave shackles on display at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., in 2016. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)
The liberation of the last slaves is a moment in American history worthy of celebration, without any partisan framing.

Congress has passed, and President Biden has signed into law, the creation of June 19 as our eleventh federal holiday, and it will commemorate Juneteenth. There are a number of arguments against this, some of them reasonable, some of them misunderstanding the holiday’s history. Ultimately, however, the liberation of American slaves is a fitting topic for a national holiday.

The first objection to Juneteenth is that it feels like some sort of brand-new, made-up, media-created holiday, like Kwanzaa or Pride Month. But it is not. True, many Americans had not heard of Juneteenth until very recently, not only because it has long been a specifically African-American celebration, but also because there are huge regional variations in how it is celebrated. The date — June 19, but actually somewhat approximate, hence the vague name — commemorates when Union Army general Gordon Granger declared an end to slavery in Texas in June 1865.

The Emancipation Proclamation declared slaves in Confederate states freed on January 1, 1863, but that was an executive order. Its application outside of military occupation was of dubious legality (as Abraham Lincoln well knew), it freed slaves only as territory was conquered, and it did not apply in territory loyal to the Union. The 13th Amendment passed Congress on January 31, 1865, formally abolishing slavery nationwide. It was ratified by three-fourths of the non-seceded states by the end of February, although only in December was it ratified by three-fourths of all states, removing any doubt as to its constitutionality.

For former slaves, what mattered was not when Congress declared things but when freedom actually arrived, and because it was their holiday, their name and date stuck. Texas, as the westernmost Confederate state and thus the last to be subdued, was slavery’s final holdout. Granger’s arrival two months after Appomattox, and his forceful declaration of the end of slavery, was a moment of great joy. Texas freedmen began celebrating the anniversary, which was eventually recognized as a state holiday in 1980. Three other states (Florida, Oklahoma, and Minnesota) recognized it as a state holiday by 2000. The holiday’s name, traditions, and forms of celebration were all organic developments of black Americans.

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For many years, it was largely a regional holiday in the South, although it was celebrated to various extents in various other parts of the country, including areas in the Midwest and even parts of Upstate New York — in other words, flyover country. Growing up in the suburbs of New York City, I never heard of Juneteenth until I was in my 30s and knew more Southerners. But just because it was largely unknown in some parts of America does not mean that the holiday is recent in origin or artificial.

The second objection to Juneteenth is that it is presently being pushed by progressives (including more than a few white progressives who had never heard of it two or three years ago) who wish to use it as yet another club with which to denounce America over slavery. That undoubtedly is part of what drove the current political movement. Ed Markey, who is as white as anyone in Congress and has represented Massachusetts in Congress since the Bicentennial, named the bill creating the federal holiday the “Juneteenth National Independence Day Act.” That is preposterous; we already have an Independence Day, which was celebrated throughout the United States long before 1865. It is also not what the people who actually created the Juneteenth holiday and celebrated it for over a century called it. It is Juneteenth, and Juneteenth is all the name it needs.

Markey’s statement on the bill focuses on slavery, not liberation, and frames it as part of a partisan agenda:

I am humbled to be a part of this momentous day in United States history as our government finally recognizes this part of our history and acknowledges the original sin of slavery. . . . This law is an important step forward for racial equality in our country, and as communities celebrate Juneteenth this weekend, it is a clarion call for us to continue the fight for true justice for Black and Brown Americans. We must recommit ourselves to passing substantive voting rights reform to ensure that every person’s voice is heard in our electoral system. We must ensure police accountability and put an end to the cycle of brutality and murder by law enforcement. We must put economic justice, health justice, and environmental justice at the center of all our work. Creating this federal holiday is just one step in our nation’s ongoing journey towards racial justice and liberation.

Other Democrats have put out similar stuff. But then, partisan opportunism cuts both ways; only a year ago, Donald Trump was pledging to make Juneteenth a federal holiday, and the Democrats and the media would doubtless be a lot more muted on its significance if Trump had been the one signing the bill. In any event, to hold modern progressivism and its ugly spawn — the 1619 Project, critical race theory — against the holiday is anachronistic. It ignores not only the actual history of Juneteenth but also the warm and patriotic spirit of brotherhood and pageantry with which it has traditionally been celebrated. Ed Markey, Rashida Tlaib, and Ilhan Omar do not get to define for the descendants of American slaves what their holiday has traditionally meant.

Just ask Opal Lee, the 94-year-old woman whose tireless advocacy was as responsible as anything for Juneteenth becoming a national holiday. For years, the “grandmother of Juneteenth” has talked about Juneteenth as a celebration of “unity,” a theme she hit on when announcing, this year, the re-release of her children’s book on the holiday:

I want all people, young and old, to know what Juneteenth is and understand its significance. It’s never too early to teach children about our country’s history, about our mission of unity, and about the importance of celebrating freedom.

As her Change.org petition states:

I believe Juneteenth can be a unifier because it recognizes that slaves didn’t free themselves and that they had help, from Quakers along the Underground Railroad, abolitionists both black and white like Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison, soldiers and many others who gave their lives for the freedom of the enslaved.

The third objection, and in my view the most serious one, is that ten federal holidays are quite enough, and if we are going to create a new one, we should eliminate one of the existing holidays. This is not a frivolous concern; if you do a rough estimate by dividing America’s gross domestic product by the number of workdays in a year, reducing one workday costs us about $3 billion. That is very rough math, but there is no question that shaving additional workdays off the calendar has real economic consequences. The same is true of efforts to make Election Day a national holiday.

As a traditionalist, of course, I naturally incline to just keeping the calendar we have, and honor what has grown and worked over time. That said, if you were going to design from scratch a list of things for America to commemorate with federal holidays, the end of slavery would be one of the big ones that ought to make the list. That used to be effectively commemorated by Lincoln’s birthday, but he has never actually had a national holiday, and the list of states that celebrate his birthday has been in sharp decline. That is a shame; Lincoln is at least as worthy of a national holiday as George Washington, more worthy than Martin Luther King Jr., and unquestionably more worthy than Christopher Columbus. Instead, partly because his birthday is so close to Washington’s, we get “Presidents Day,” as if we are celebrating the two of them equally with Andrew Johnson and James Buchanan.

The current holiday least deserving of commemoration is Labor Day, which marks neither a preexisting cultural holiday (such as Christmas) nor a national milestone (such as Columbus Day, July 4, or Thanksgiving), nor a monumental figure. But Labor Day, like Memorial Day, has the advantage of having become one of the tentpoles marking the start and end of summer, and being placed immediately before the start of the school year in much of the country. (Placement on the calendar is also why I have long argued that the Martin Luther King holiday would have been better situated in August to mark his “I Have a Dream” speech rather than his birthday a few weeks after the end of the Christmas holidays.) Perhaps a more practical solution would be to either demote Columbus Day or eliminate Veterans Day as a separate holiday and promote the celebration of living veterans together with the war dead on Memorial Day. Bear in mind, Memorial Day is the much older holiday, dating to 1868 in the aftermath of the colossal bloodshed of the Civil War. Veterans Day was originally created as Armistice Day to celebrate the end of the First World War — a big event, but in the long sweep of things, a lesser one in American history than the end of slavery. As wars with the death rates of the Civil War or the Second World War recede from living memory, it would be no great disservice to our military veterans to celebrate the two holidays together, and would probably help more Americans remember that Memorial Day is more than just “a long weekend.” In the current cultural moment, however, it seems likelier that Columbus Day would be the head on the chopping block if we eliminated a holiday.

Congress deserves criticism for, as usual, handing out the goodies without paying the bill. In either event, though, that is a problem with Congress, not a problem with Juneteenth. The liberation of the last slaves is a moment in American history worthy of celebration, and was already a long-standing cultural holiday. Honoring it on the calendar is worthy of a great nation.

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1 Comment

  1. Our country did used to celebrate Lincoln’s Birthday when I was young. They stopped it about 35 years ago and changed to President’s day.
    I grew up in NJ and like Trump, I never heard of Juneteenth. From what I read online, it was a Texas thing. The slaves in other states were liberated earlier. The news got to Texas later, on June 19th, because news traveled slowly then. When I looked this up, apparently that is the only place it was celebrated.

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