Every year on the fourth day of July, millions of Americans gather together with their family and friends to celebrate America’s independence. Growing up as an African American in Texas there was a much more celebrated summer’s day, Juneteenth!
June 19, better known as Juneteenth, commemorates the day slaves were officially set free. That’s right, the Emancipation Proclamation issued by President Abraham Lincoln on January 1, 1863, did not free all enslaved people. In fact, African Americans would remain enslaved another two and a half years before their liberation June 19, 1865. It was on that day in 1865 that United States troops lead by Gen. Gordon Granger would arrive in Galveston, Texas, and give the official order that all slaves were to be freed. This day of “Jubilee” would begin to be celebrated by the freed men and women every year and would finally become an official holiday by the state of Texas in 1979.
Since I was a small child in Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas, I can vividly remember the week leading up to the Juneteenth holiday celebration. There would be gatherings to discuss foods, entertainment, parades, speeches, and so much more. The energy throughout the entire African American community would shift from the everyday hustle and bustle to a feeling of rejoice. Juneteenth to me is the defining moment of our family. It is a common misinformed idea that slavery was so long ago. Unfortunately, that is simply untrue. If it were not for that day in 1865, my great-grandmother could have quite possibly remained enslaved, thus never giving life to my grandmother. That is a very harsh reality to face and accept, but it is my firm belief that it is what drives the commitment to celebrate this holiday every single year. There are so many others in this country with the same story as me, like John Lewis whose story also takes him back to his great-grandmother and grandmother.
Mia Shepherd, originally from the Dallas-Fort Worth area of Texas, is a member of the U.S. Attorney's Civil Rights Task Force; Hate/Race-Based Crimes Victim Witness Advocate at the Berkshire District Attorney's Office, a member of the Blackshires Anchor Leadership Circle and a community activist.
When I think about Juneteenth, I often think about the times I had as a kid celebrating with my grandmother. My great-grandfather was African American and my great-grandmother was Blackfoot Native American. My grandmother would reflect on her having to travel as a child with her mom and dad across the Kentucky border to Oklahoma at night by horse and buggy during the “Trail of Tears”. That transition from Kentucky to Missouri was endemic of the conditions we had to endure as a people in our history. I remember that story being so important for her to share at every Juneteenth holiday celebration. As a kid, I didn't really appreciate it as much as I probably should have until I got older and really understood the history and the meaning behind the Juneteenth celebration. At home, I would remember my mom telling me that Missouri was the last state to “free the slaves.” However untrue, at the time this belief stayed with many of my grandmother's and mother’s generation.
The sad reality is that, that legacy of liberty and freedom for all was not totally adopted by all states and ratified as law. Subsequently, even after the 13th Amendment became national law, many Southern states including Kentucky and Delaware resisted ratifying the provision for decades. Mississippi, the last state to do so, refused to pass ratification legislation until 1995 and didn’t formally file the passage until 2013. Let us all take a moment to ponder the notion that it took nearly 150 years to have all 50 states acknowledge the freedom of African Americans in this country. However, we must remain diligent in our work to achieve what is to be an equal and just society for all. Even here in Berkshire County, we still have a lot of work to do to dismantle, reshape, and redesign the system that is currently in place that continues to riddle the generations of African Americans that are direct descendants of those freed on June 19, 1865.
John Lewis, originally from Kansas City, Kan., is CEO of R3SET Enterprises; founder of the Blackshires Platform Leadership Advisory Board; a member of EforAll Advisory Committee and 1Berkshire.