What happened between Jan. 1, 1863, and June 1865, and after the passage of the 13th Amendment? How does it impact us? Why should we care?
Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863, to free slaves in Confederate controlled states. Some Black people remained physically enslaved for another two and a half years, especially in Galveston, Texas, where federal troops arrived in June 1865 to ensure that slave owners released slaves. In December 1865, slavery was abolished by the ratification of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. The intentions of the 13th Amendment and the reality of ongoing slavery were two divergent yet open secrets.
On the one hand, there was a law that stated Black people were free, but in reality Black people remained enslaved. Information was withheld, some did not know how to read or their lives and livelihood were threatened. After being beaten and psychologically conditioned for decades to serve and surrender, in some cases it was easier to submit rather than resist, and to stay rather than flee.
Even though a signed document declared slavery unconstitutional, there were still systems devised, implemented and sustained — such as Jim Crow laws — to oppress. An example of this today is that even though the 15th Amendment and the Voting Rights Act allow Black people to vote, the sacred right to vote is under radical attack as some politicians seek to make it very difficult to get to the polls.
In all that we are doing to recognize and commemorate Juneteenth, there is another gaping void that has been neglected. An omission in oversight, a dereliction in duties, a laxness in leadership has occurred and no one seems to be talking about it. While lots of companies and organizations are adopting Juneteenth for community service projects and a day off from work, there are millions of Black youths who have no knowledge about Juneteenth or what it means to this country or Black history.
Why? Because Black Americans are rarely portrayed in school books, much less in American history. The Emancipation Proclamation is taught in some schools, but rarely is there a mention of Juneteenth. This gap represents an opportunity.
Now that Juneteenth has become a national federal holiday, our charge is not so much how we celebrate or commemorate the freedom of slaves on one day, but how we influence change for generations. Each of us should see ourselves as a stakeholder, investor, ambassador and steward of all things good in America. As such, we should also see ourselves as an ally, partner, advocate, proponent and supporter of American history, which includes the African American journey and the atrocities associated with slavery.
With reflection on the origins of Juneteenth, there is a rose among thorns, a light in the midst of darkness and a ray of hope that eclipses cynicism. That rose, light and ray collectively have the power to continue to change America’s race relations for the better.
A great example of this was the recent commitment by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to fund $3 million in scholarships for Black students and a $250,000 fellowship for students to travel to Ghana to learn about Black American history, offered in partnership with the NAACP. This commitment represents a tangible belief in the betterment and advancement of Black Americans. It will not only provide access to resources to learn about history and heritage, but it will also serve as a game-changer, impetus and juggernaut in providing relief from student loan debt.
What can we do to express belief in the betterment of race relations and the advancement of African Americans? Here are a few suggestions for your consideration:
- Model the donation of The Church of Jesus Christ and Latter-day Saints and set up a scholarship in your church, community or organization.
- Make a donation to an HBCU (Historically Black College or University).
- Host a “day of understanding” where the history of different groups is discussed.
- Do business with African American business owners, who generally employ other African Americans. A rising tide lifts all boats.
- Never forget, erase or rewrite Black history.
- Advocate for the portrayal and inclusion of Black history, including Juneteenth, in educational resources.
- Lead a service project in the African American community.
- Continue to believe in and act toward a better America.
Theresa A. Dear is a national board member of the NAACP and a contributor to the Deseret News.