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Opinion: Why ‘Juneteenth’ should be a national holiday

Protesters chant as they march after a Juneteenth rally at the Brooklyn Museum, in the Brooklyn borough of New York.
In this June 19, 2020, file photo, protesters chant as they march after a Juneteenth rally at the Brooklyn Museum, in the Brooklyn borough of New York.
John Minchillo, Associated Press

The “Juneteenth” announcement in Texas that all slaves were freed, given on June 19, 1865, came more than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation took effect, and more than two months after Abraham Lincoln was assassinated.

But it has become a unifying symbol of the final fulfillment of freedom for America’s officially enslaved population. It certainly wasn’t the end to racist violence, discrimination or a seemingly never-ending list of shameful disadvantages thrown at Black people. That day still lies in the future.

However, it stands for hope, and for another step forward in the nation’s relentless effort to live up to its own ideals. The Texas slaves were the last to be freed as Union armies moved through the Confederacy.

This week, the U.S. Senate unanimously passed a measure that would make June 19th a national holiday. We are aware of the arguments that such a holiday would cost millions as workers take the day off. But the holiday — already observed in many states — would be an important step toward healing a nation’s wounds. It would simultaneously acknowledge the pain and mistreatments of the past, while directing Americans’ gaze toward a better future.

That is worth the cost.

The House seems sure to pass the same measure. We urge representatives to do so quickly.

Why June 19, and not Jan. 1, the day in 1863 when Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation took effect? The difference lies in the details and the practical effects.

The Emancipation Proclamation applied only to confederate states, not to loyal border states that still practiced slavery. In the South, it had no practical meaning at all, as rebellious states didn’t consider themselves bound by anything coming from Washington. Its greatest impact was to allow Black soldiers to fight for the Union, which eventually led to a force of about 180,000 men, according to the Library of Congress.

But even after the end of the war, the Union states of Kentucky and Delaware continued to allow slavery until the ratification of the 13th Amendment on Dec. 6, 1865, nearly six months after Juneteenth.

By contrast, when Union soldiers moved into Texas on June 19, U.S. Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger issued General Order No. 3. This informed people that all slaves were immediately free, but it also included some important language.

“This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves,” it said, “and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor.”

That statement matters. It is a definitive declaration of equal rights, even if such a condition didn’t exist in any practical sense.

Many slaveholders had fled to Texas to avoid the reach of the Union Army. They were not anxious to inform their slaves of General Order No. 3, and many refused to do so until the fall harvest was over, or until forced to do so by Union officials.

But, as historian Henry Louis Gates Jr., noted in an essay published by PBS, the June 19 order meant the slaves, “now had a date to rally around.”

“In one of the most inspiring grassroots efforts of the post-Civil War period, they transformed June 19 from a day of unheeded military orders into their own annual rite, ‘Juneteenth,’ beginning one year later in 1866,” he wrote.

That spirit of hope and joy alone is worth celebrating, especially set against the backdrop of violence, hopelessness and despair that lay ahead. It is reason enough to make the date a national holiday.