Summary: On June 17, 2021, President Biden signed into law Juneteenth as a new Federal holiday. ghSMART Fellow Noah Harris reflects on this momentous occasion; Noah is the first Black man to serve as Harvard’s student body-elected president in the school’s 385 year history.
Juneteenth represents the end of slavery in the United States.
Saturday, June 19th will mark the 156th anniversary of federal troops arriving in Galveston, Texas to free the last enslaved people, otherwise known as Juneteenth. Two and a half years prior to the troops’ arrival, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.
I can only imagine being there in 1865 when United States General Gordan Granger rode into Galveston to inform the enslaved people they had been freed. General Granger stood before the free world and read General Orders No. 3: “The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free.”
Imagine being enslaved when you woke up that morning and free at the day’s end. The lives of those people had changed forever, and with it, the course of American history. The only thing worse than being the last enslaved Africans to be freed must be no one ever knowing it happened.
Therefore, the next year in 1866, former slaves began celebrating Juneteenth in Galveston to commemorate their freedom and the moment in which they shared.
Each year, more citizens, companies, and states recognize Juneteenth as a holiday. The holiday’s recognition saw its most substantial growth following the death of George Floyd last summer, but the day still remains unknown to thousands of Americans.
Fortunately, all unfamiliarity around Juneteenth is about to end.
Earlier this year, Congress reintroduced legislation to make Juneteenth a national holiday. At first, it seemed as if the partisan gridlock of Washington might stall the legislation just as it had last year when it was first introduced. However, on Tuesday of this week the Senate unanimously passed the legislation to make Juneteenth a national holiday, followed by the House of Representatives on Wednesday.
Thursday afternoon, President Biden signed the bill, creating the first federal holiday since Martin Luther King, Jr. Day was created in 1983. This does not happen often, and we must celebrate this feat. Of course, with all national holidays, and a day off for most people, comes the awareness of why exactly this day joins the ranks of Veteran’s Day, Labor Day, Independence Day, Memorial Day, and the rest of the now eleven federal holidays.
Juneteenth is worth our recognition because of what it means for all the people who were not free on July 4th, 1776. For Black people, that dream was not realized until June 19th, 1865. Only because of Juneteenth does America live up to its ideals as the home of the free.
For anyone interested in further reading, there are a few resources I can recommend: Frederick Douglass’ speech “What to a Slave is the Fourth of July”, How to be an Antiracist by Ibram Kendi, and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me are top on my list. These texts do a beautiful job of connecting the very literal importance of celebrating freedom with our current responsibility to promote justice in the present.
This is a big moment in American history, and I am glad to share it with all of you.