Why not a Juneteenth holiday?

Opinion: Editorials

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How was your Juneteenth? What's that? You're not familiar with that term? It's not surprising. Many people, especially white people, have been unaware of Juneteenth for well over a century, though among the country's Black population it's a sacred day.

In short, Juneteenth commemorates the day when the institution of slavery ended, for good, in the United States. More than two months after the Civil War ended and more than two years after Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, on June 19, 1865, Union General Gordon Granger landed with his troops at Galveston, Texas, to enforce Lincoln's abolition of slavery.

Granger read aloud General Order 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. This involves an absolute equality of rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired laborer."

In the century plus that followed, particularly in Texas but elsewhere in the U.S., June 19, or Juneteenth, became a day of celebration for Black Americans. The rest of the population, however, ignored it.

Does anyone over the age of 40 remember being taught about Juneteenth in high school American history class? We sure can't remember it. Our recollection of 19th American history class was the less said about slavery, the better. Slavery existed in the South, there was a war, the Union won and slavery was abolished. Reconstruction followed and at some point ended. Carpetbaggers were involved.

That approach to American history is now changing, and it's about time. It's past time we as Americans, particularly white Americans, confront that history.

In Riverside on June 19, more than 100 people – mostly in their teens and 20s – sought to do that, marching from the North Riverside Police Department to Guthrie Park in Riverside.

Perhaps the date was coincidental, but those who organized the demonstration to demand racial justice and police accountability recognized its significance. After kneeling silently for almost nine minutes in memory of George Flood and other people of color who have died needlessly at the hands of police, a recent high school graduate picked up the bullhorn and read aloud the Emancipation Proclamation.

Raise your hand if that was the first time you'd consumed the entire contents of that document. 

The moment also marked, we're guessing for the first time in its history, Riverside's first Juneteenth celebration. It was a solemn commemoration.

Juneteenth is recognized as a ceremonial holiday in 47 states, including Illinois, and Gov. J.B. Pritzker says he'll push for making Juneteenth an official state holiday. Federal legislation may also be in the works to make Juneteenth a national holiday.

It's kind of amazing that it's taken this nation 155 years to think to formally mark the end of its most shameful chapter. Although that's probably the reason; we don't like to reflect on things that don't make us look good.

But the day marking the end of the enslavement of a large swath of this nation's people? We can't think of a more fitting reason to celebrate. 

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