The Juneteenth holiday is as much a celebration of Black America’s heritage and achievements as it is a moment of protest and a challenge for the nation to do better.
That was the message that Black lawmakers, their allies, and community members delivered as they gathered in the Capitol on Tuesday to mark a holiday that commemorates the freeing of the last enslaved Americans in Galveston, Texas on June 19, 1865 – more than two years after President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.
The enslaved residents of Galveston already knew they were free, but that freedom wasn’t fully realized until Union troops, led by Gen. Gordon Granger, rolled into Texas two full months after Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Courthouse to make it happen, Lenwood Sloan, the executive director of the Commonwealth Monuments Project, said.
“It was not the Emancipation Proclamation that freed the slaves that day, it was the 200,000 union soldiers who forced the Confederates to stop fighting,” Sloan said. “It continues today. It is simultaneously a parade and a protest.”
Tuesday’s event was sponsored by the Pennsylvania Legislative Black Caucus, which represents the interests of Black lawmakers in the state House and Senate. Lawmakers from both chambers were on hand for the observance.
The holiday is “really about Black resistance in the face of justice denied,” Rep. Chris Rabb, D-Philadelphia, said. “If there is any holiday that genuinely embraces Black liberation and freedom, moving toward reconciliation, then this is it.”
The multi-faceted nature of the holiday, at once a celebration, an opportunity for non-Black Americans to learn about a critical period of the nation’s history, and a call to action, was reinforced by speaker after speaker at Tuesday’s event.
The holiday is a “solemn reminder of our ancestors who were forcibly taken into bondage, leading to the freedom of the last enslaved people,” Rep. Stephen Kinsey, D-Philadelphia, said, adding that there “is still a long way to go,” before the United States reaches the full promise of that freedom.
Dr. Kimeka Campbell, of the Young Professionals of Color of Harrisburg, said she wanted to offer an invitation to “all those who still don’t get what the big deal is.
“Every opportunity to learn and grow has your name on it,” she said. “Juneteenth is American history, and it’s time we treat it as such.”
Juneteenth became an official federal holiday on June 17, 2021. In 2019, Gov. Tom Wolf signed legislation designating each June 19 as “Juneteenth National Freedom Day,” in the commonwealth. State offices under the administration’s jurisdiction are annually closed in observance of it.
Even as they have endured decades of racism, violence, and discrimination, “Black Americans believe in democracy,” Rep. Donna Bullock, D-Philadelphia, the Black Caucus’ chairperson, said.
“We believe in this country – a country we literally built,” she continued, adding that, as a result, “We demand our country do better and be better.”
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