As the Civil War came to a close in 1865, a number of people remained enslaved, especially in remote areas. Word of slavery’s end traveled slowly, and for those who were largely isolated from Union armies, life continued as if freedom did not exist.
This was especially the case in Texas, where thousands of slaves were not made aware of freedom until June 19, 1865, when Union Gen. Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston and issued an order officially freeing them. Their celebration would serve as the basis of June 19 — or Juneteenth — a holiday celebrating emancipation in the US.
Ironically, while Juneteenth has become the most prominent Emancipation Day holiday in the US, it commemorates a smaller moment that remains relatively obscure. It doesn’t mark the signing of the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, which technically freed slaves in the rebelling Confederate states, nor does it commemorate the December 1865 ratification of the 13th Amendment, which enshrined the end of slavery into the Constitution. Instead, it marks the moment when emancipation finally reached those in the deepest parts of the former Confederacy.
In many ways, Juneteenth represents how freedom and justice in the US has always been delayed for black people. The decades after the end of the war would see a wave of lynching, imprisonment, and Jim Crow laws take root. What followed was the disproportionate impact of mass incarceration, discriminatory housing policies, and a lack of economic investment. And now, as national attention remain focused on acts of police violence and various racial profiling incidents, it is clear that while progress has been made in black America’s 150 years out of bondage, considerable barriers continue to impede that progress.
Those barriers may remain until America truly begins to grapple with its history. “There are those in this society that still hold on to the idea that the Civil War wasn’t about slavery, it was about states’ rights or Northern aggression against slavery,” says Karlos Hill, a professor of African and African-American studies at the University of Oklahoma and the author of Beyond the Rope: The Impact of Lynching on Black Culture and Memory. “Juneteenth is a moment where we step back and try to understand the Civil War through the eyes of enslaved people.”
I spoke with Hill recently about the history of Juneteenth, why the push to make it a national holiday matters, and how commemorating the holiday could bring America closer to truly embracing its ideals of freedom and equality for all.
Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Can you tell me a bit about the history of Juneteenth and what the holiday commemorates?
In the United States, we do not have a commemoration for the emancipation of 4 million enslaved people. We simply have not commemorated that monumental moment.
Juneteenth is a holiday, or commemoration meant to celebrate word of emancipation finally coming to a group of enslaved people in Galveston, Texas. It commemorates this group of slaves who learned that they had been emancipated months earlier. The holiday is meant to commemorate the emancipation of 4 million slaves, but particularly the small handful who weren’t aware that emancipation had come months earlier.
When it comes to teaching the history of Juneteenth, what does that look like? This isn’t really taught in schools, is it?
Juneteenth as a moment in African-American history is not, to my knowledge, taught. There are references to it in certain textbooks. I recently taught at Texas Tech University, and because of Juneteenth’s importance to Texas history, it is mentioned in some textbooks there. But in history textbooks across the nation, I would be willing to guess that there are few, if any, mentions of this holiday.
I think the question of if Juneteenth is well-known and understood is directly tied to the history of slavery not being well-understood. And I think that Juneteenth is largely seen as an African-American thing; it is not seen as something for the general population. Much like Kwanzaa, it is seen as a holiday that is just observed by African Americans and is poorly understood outside of the African-American community. It is perceived as being part of black culture and not “American culture,” so to speak.
Did the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s affect public knowledge of Juneteenth?
The civil rights and black power movements are a moment where old ways of thinking about blackness begin to recede and new ways of understanding blackness begin to come to the fore. And for a long time in African-American history, there was some shame around having been enslaved. There was shame around the kind of stereotypes around slavery that were used to humiliate African-American people.
I think with the black power movement, there was a moment where African-American activists and, more broadly, black culture took a turn toward thinking about the slave past as a moment of struggle, one that black people overcame, but also one that we should be proud of in the sense that African Americans created communities, they created families, they created culture, and that was worth celebrating; that was worth being proud of.
That period created a moment in which black people reinterpreted the experience of slavery as instead of being something to be ashamed of, it was something to be proud of. Out of this much larger cultural turn, our understanding of slavery was being revised. As a holiday that commemorates the experience of slavery, it makes sense that [increased awareness of] Juneteenth would happen then.
I know that over the years, there’s been a push from women like Opal Lee to black journalists, other historians, etc., to have Juneteenth become a federally recognized holiday. What do you think of that push?
I recently visited the National Memorial for Peace and Justice as well as the Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Alabama, both created by the Equal Justice Initiative. And what that memorial and that museum try to do is tie the history of slavery to our present. It tries to help us understand the ways in which we as a country have never really dealt with the trauma or the legacy of slavery, and everything connected to slavery. From the perspective of the memorial and museum, our whole racial past is tied up in and connected to slavery.
One of the things that Bryan Stevenson [founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative] has argued is that in order for us to move beyond slavery, its legacy, and the trauma it brought, we have to acknowledge the ways in which slavery generated massive amounts of wealth for white Americans, and how the narratives used to justify slavery are still connected with narratives that are used to oppress African Americans today. He argues that unless we acknowledge all of this, we are going to continue to face the consequences of this legacy.
Through that memorial, and with things like a national Juneteenth holiday, we can begin to really acknowledge and address all of the issues, past and present, tied up in this issue of slavery.
It wouldn’t be a Juneteenth holiday so much that would bring about this change; it would be the dialogue — creating the consensus around the holiday, the actions taken after this holiday has been approved at the national level — that would really be where change begins. A Juneteenth holiday is just the impetus and enabler of the change that we want to see. The process of creating this holiday, the change that would need to occur to get people’s minds and spirits in the right place, is really what we want.
We are in a moment where America is really being confronted with its history and this question of what it wants to memorialize. I think about the violence in Charlottesville, or the ongoing debate about Confederate monuments, or even things like the Equal Justice Initiative’s efforts to make America more aware of the history and grim realities of lynching. And I’m wondering, where does Juneteenth fit into that?
It goes back to an earlier point I made. As a nation, as a collective, we’ve never really acknowledged the 250-plus years of slavery, and the depth of it, and the trauma it caused and the wealth it created. We haven’t really had an accounting for that.
Can you imagine 9/11 happening and there not being a recognition, a ritual, a moment where we step back and take an accounting of what happened on that day? Where we think about who it happened to and the trauma that it caused and how people have dealt with its wake, and how we’re still dealing with it? Can you imagine that not happening? Think about how that one day had this tremendous ripple effect — it changed how we did everything in this country. Now look at 250 years of slavery, and all that is bound up and connected in that. We have done almost nothing as a nation to deal with that.
One year after Charlottesville and the debate of monuments, and for me a month after going to Montgomery, a city that is a veritable shrine to the Confederacy, observing something like Juneteenth is kind of a stark reminder of the divided history that we have as a nation as it relates to slavery, as it related to the Civil War.
There are those in this society that still hold on to the idea that the Civil War wasn’t about slavery, it was about states’ rights or Northern aggression against slavery. You have those in society that like to tell the story of the Civil War exclusively through the eyes of the Confederacy and not through the eyes of enslaved people. Juneteenth is a moment where we step back and try to understand the Civil War through the eyes of enslaved people. There is an argument to be made that we use Juneteenth as part of an effort of enslaved people to liberate themselves from bondage.
When we start to peel back the layers and think about slavery and the Civil War in the context of today, Juneteenth is a moment where we bring to the fore these divided histories on remembering this era. As a nation, we don’t have a national consensus on this issue, and that’s why we don’t have a national consensus on the holiday. That’s the part of this that we are still fighting: who gets to decide what that history means, 150 years later. As a nation, we haven’t done that work.
Is there anything else you want to add?
I think that Juneteenth is a necessary moment of observation because our government and, to a certain degree, our nation and our culture has not really acknowledged the trauma of 4 million enslaved people and their descendants. It hasn’t acknowledged the impact this institution has had on this country and continues to have on this country. There hasn’t been a national accounting, and I think the Juneteenth holiday is kind of a reminder of that. And it will continue to be a reminder and a haunting until we do. It’s necessary, but it isn’t sufficient in terms of what we need to when it comes to acknowledging this history.