You and I, and all others who claim American citizenship, now have reason to celebrate a new Federal holiday, Juneteenth, our 12th legal public holiday.
Last week, on Tuesday, June 15, the Senate unanimously passed legislation to make June 19, or Juneteenth, a national holiday. On Wednesday, June 16, the House passed it with only 14 “no” votes.
On Thursday, June 17, President Joe Biden signed into law the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act in the White House’s East Room. In his remarks there, Biden said, “Great nations don’t ignore their most painful moments. They don’t ignore those moments of the past. They embrace them. Great nations don’t walk away. We come to terms with the mistakes we made. And in remembering those moments, we begin to heal and grow stronger.”
On Friday, June 18, federal workers enjoyed a day off, to reflect upon slavery’s extinction.
The last time Congress and a president brought into existence a new federal holiday was in 1983, almost four decades ago, when Ronald Reagan signed Martin Luther King Jr. Day into law.
Today is Saturday, June 19, and I am writing this column now. You and I now recognize Juneteenth as, “A holiday celebrating the emancipation of those who had been enslaved in the United States.”
On June 19, 1865, a Union Army major general named Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, to inform all Texans, both free and slave, that slavery was over, finished, an ugly and painful memory, and that he will enforce Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of 1862.
Two months before, on April 9, 1865, the Civil War had ended, when Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant. Five days later, on April 14, John Wilkes Booth shot Lincoln in the back of his head, and he died the next day. Lincoln was dead, but so too was slavery. He had set free four million slaves.
Granger issued General Order Number 3, a document now housed in the National Archives Building in Washington, D.C. The major general delivered just four sentences, split into two paragraphs.
First sentence, “The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free.” One can only imagine the wild joy that tore across the Texas prairie, once the slaves heard the welcome news that President Lincoln had freed them.
Second sentence, “This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor.”
In terse words, Granger states that no man or woman can henceforth buy, sell, or claim to own another person, that each citizen is “absolute” equal to another, and that each retains “personal rights.” Granger then replaces the idea of “masters and slaves,” with “employer and hired labor.”
That distinction in the changed relationship between management and its work force is immense. A slave would receive little compensation for her or his work, had no opportunity to leave an employer and find work elsewhere, and suffered the most brutal beatings if tempted to run away.
Now he or she is free to find work and opportunity wherever. Gone are the chains, the leg irons, the whips, the ropes, and the merciless whipping post that kept a slave in bondage forever.
Third sentence, “The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages.” Granger suggests that the former slaves should stay, for the moment, where they live now, refrain from seeking revenge, and that if they work, their former masters must pay them money.
Fourth sentence, “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.”
Granger fears that the former slaves will seek protection from their former masters’ cruelty by congregating “at military posts,” and that they will then expect the U.S. Army to support them “in idleness either there or elsewhere.”
Granger dashes that notion. Although he will set the Texas slaves free and will grant them a set of astonishing political rights, he expects the former slaves to work. Granger knows that an economy will not function without a work force, that management needs to hire workers, and that workers need jobs.
Last April, the historian Annette Gordon-Reed, a native Texan and a descendant of slaves, published a slim volume she entitled “Juneteenth.” She writes that, “she remembers Juneteenth celebrations from her childhood, drinking red soda and setting off firecrackers that her grandfather bought for her.”
As of last week, Juneteenth is no longer just a Texas holiday, but a national holiday, an attempt to “embrace” our “most painful moments, “to come to terms with the mistakes we made,” early in our history, and “to heal and grow stronger.”