It can be hard to grasp the brutality of slavery, because it feels like it was so long ago. We seem far removed from a past that included some of the most horrific acts of terror, intimidation, and dehumanization ever committed on our country’s soil.
That’s why history and education are so important, and it’s why Juneteenth, the day that commemorates the enforcement of the Emancipation Proclamation in the state of Texas, is such an important day for all Americans to celebrate, regardless of race, class, sex, or religion. When we understand our past, we can celebrate our present and continue to build a stronger, more inclusive, and thriving future for our country.
As a kid in the south, the topic of slavery made me seethe. I remember fuming, “How could people be treated in such a way by other people?” Yet I enjoyed visiting the antebellum plantations in Georgia. Seeing the endless acres of land and the beautiful oak trees draped in moss, I felt a bit closer to those who worked the land and withstood the unbearable conditions.
I remember visiting the National Civil Rights Museum in my hometown of Memphis, Tennessee for the first time at the tender age of 9 or 10. Prior to the visit, I had learned much about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., but to stand in front on the Lorraine Motel (on which the museum is centered) and see the actual balcony where he was assassinated was a moment I can never forget. At that moment, I fell in love with historical preservation.
A couple decades later I toured Mount Vernon, the home of our nation’s first president, George Washington. I remember the chills that spread across my body when our tour guide said, “At some point every founding father of our nation has been in this very dining room.” I was floored that very moment.
Today when I visit gravesites, museums, and landmarks honoring those who were enslaved in our country, I no longer feel that frustration I felt as a kid. Instead, my mind goes back in time.
Reflecting on Juneteenth, I ponder what it must have felt like to be a slave in Texas and to hear for the first time, on June 19, 1865, that slavery ended in America. I think of the feelings and emotions that must have spread through the hearts and souls of newly freed slaves throughout the state, which had successfully isolated the news of Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender on April 9 of that year, effectively ending the Civil War.
On June 19, 1865, Gen. Gordon Granger of the Union Army issued the following order in Galveston, Texas: “The people 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 personal rights and rights of property, between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them, become that between employer and hired labor. The freed are advised to remain at their present homes, and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts; and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.”
This order caused much uproar and resistance among most slave-owners across the Confederate states. There was targeted violence against freed slaves, as well as intimidation tactics such as laws called “Black Codes.” But in true American fashion, freedom prevailed and slavery in our country was abolished. While Juneteenth wasn’t the end of all the vestiges of slavery, the day gave hope and promise to millions of freed slaves in America.
“This historic moment would not have been possible without the courage and sacrifice of the nearly 200,000 former enslaved and free African Americans who fought for liberty alongside more than 2 million Union servicemen,” said President Trump on Juneteenth last year. “As a nation, we vow to never forget the millions of African Americans who suffered the evils of slavery.”
Because of this rich history, I still love visiting historic sites. While not always glitz and glamour, learning history provides an emotional and contextual perspective on eras we’d never know much about unless bold steps are taken to preserve, protect, and educate the public about our past. Throughout our country and across the globe there are passionate volunteers, professional curators, historical foundations, philanthropists, and everyday citizens (amongst a host of others) who invest countless hours towards preserving our history to paint vivid pictures of our past times.
History connects our past to our current state. It relays our progress and unlimited potential, while reminding us of the responsibility of today’s challenges. Visitors leave historical sites, museums, and the like with lasting impressions that in many cases can change the course of our future.
Today, it falls on us to honor the courageous acts of those who took a stand at critical moments in history. That bravery has inspired countless others, which is how we continue to strive to form a more perfect union. On the night he was elected in 2008, President Obama said, “That’s the true genius of America: that America can change. Our union can be perfected.”
This Juneteenth, I pay homage to those who were enslaved and celebrate the news they received on June 19, 1865. I proudly give thanks to being born in a country that had the foresight in July 1776 to pronounce a bold Declaration of Independence, the first step in building a governmental and societal framework that allows We the People to act boldly within our families, communities, and nation.
Let us all seek ways we can preserve and embrace our culture. Let us celebrate the successes we have achieved in recent years and look forward to a thriving future. And let us celebrate the moments in history such as Juneteenth, which define the United States of America and show that we can overcome anything.