900 days to freedom
Nine hundred days.
In the thick of a deadly civil war, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation Jan. 1, 1863, proclaiming “that all persons held as slaves are, and henceforward shall be free.” While information traveled quite a bit more slowly in the late 1800s, it still took 900 days for residents in Galveston, Texas, to hear the news. While freedom was sung about in hymns and spirituals to get them through the tribulations of life on the plantation, some enslaved people concluded that the day would never come in their lifetimes. And for the 250,000 enslaved people in Galveston, those 900 days could have very well been an eternity before they finally learned of their overdue freedom on June 19, 1865.
The people of Texas 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 becomes that between employer and hired labor. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly 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.
Head Quarters District of Texas
Galveston Texas June 19th, 1865
General Orders No. 3
June 19 marked a day of jubilation for those formerly enslaved in Galveston, and it is celebrated then and now with annual parades, festivals, barbecues and rallies. Affectionately called Juneteenth, and also known as Jubilee Day, this anniversary of freedom began to be celebrated by newly freed residents of Galveston in 1866. This practice quickly spread to other states, as African Americans celebrated the day their ancestors had prayed and longed for since the shackled arrival of the first Africans to the Americas in 1619.
There are many speculations as to why it took two and half years for Union soldiers to arrive in Galveston to ensure that all enslaved persons were freed. Although alternative accounts seem plausible, Texas was the furthest Confederate State from Washington and there was a limited number of Union soldiers available to enforce the declaration. Texas was able to successfully resist the new Executive Orders until forced to comply.
The 900 days it took for the Emancipation Proclamation to be heard and felt in Galveston illustrates the depth of racial reckoning needed to reach true freedom for all in America.
Nevertheless, since 1865 African Americans have become increasingly more educated, gained more wealth and acquired more dignity. They have also fearlessly led — and forever impacted — the soul and fabric of this country in more ways than those enslaved would have ever imagined. However, the Emancipation Proclamation and the subsequent 13th Amendment didn’t provide Black people with the same American experience as our white counterparts. As chattel slavery ended, other forms of racial oppression, brutality and injustices prevailed. The Emmett Till Antilynching Act was passed by the U.S. House of Representatives in February 2020 and the U.S. Senate in January 2021, only recently establishing lynching as a criminal civil rights violation. Is this the “freedom” my enslaved ancestors longed for?
Black people are still experiencing injustices at alarmingly disproportionate rates. While I celebrate all that emancipation from slavery has offered, when I think about Juneteenth, I think about the urgency and yearning for liberation. While freedom from chattel slavery is well worth the jubilee, the true freedom of African Americans requires liberation: liberation from the economic, political, mental and physical traumas of being African in America. These are traumas and suffering that all too often costs us our lives.
Juneteenth is a deeply emotional holiday. It encourages a time of acknowledgment and celebration of all that African Americans have contributed to the U.S. economically and culturally. It also invites reflection on our wrongs as a society and to identify how to correct and reconcile them. Particularly with the increased interest in Juneteenth in recent years following the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and many others, the call for liberation is just as urgent now as it was in 1865.
“If you have come here to help me you are wasting your time, but if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”
Even though the Civil War brought about the end of chattel slavery, as a country we have yet to reconcile with the racial ideologies that still demoralize this country today. One of my favorite quotes is by Murri (Indigenous Australian) activist Lilla Watson. “If you have come here to help me you are wasting your time, but if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” On Juneteenth, I encourage all of us to consider ways in which we are pursuing liberation — to consider how we are collectively working toward liberation that is bound in our shared humanity.
Castel Sweet is the director for community engagement and diversity, equity & inclusion in the L. William Crotty Center at the University of Dayton School of Business Administration.