Today is Juneteenth, a new federal holiday and a chance to reflect on our shared history, to learn from America’s complicated past and to realize the promise of building a more perfect union. It’s up to us, all of us.
Let’s start with the background. Juneteenth recounts a specific moment in history. On June 19, 1865, in Galveston, U.S. Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger issued General Order No. 3, which informed the people of Texas that all enslaved people were now free. He and federal troops had arrived just the day before. “Throughout history, Juneteenth has been known by many names: Jubilee Day. Freedom Day. Liberation Day. Emancipation Day. And today, a national holiday,” Vice President Kamala Harris said Thursday just before President Joe Biden signed the bill, making Juneteenth the 12th federal holiday.
Juneteenth didn’t end slavery in the former Confederate states. The Emancipation Proclamation had tried to do that on New Year’s Day 1863. Juneteenth didn’t end slavery forevermore. The 13th Amendment did that when it was ratified on Dec. 6, 1865.
What Juneteenth really did is show the power of knowledge. The Civil War had ended more than two months earlier, when Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered on April 9 to Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse. So the enslaved Black people in Texas were already free — but they didn’t know it. It took federal troops to tell them and to enforce their freedom. Which didn’t really last.
Just over a decade later, a compromise over a disputed presidential election gave the Republicans the White House — Rutherford B. Hayes became president — but Southern Democrats insisted in return that federal troops vacate the South. The soldiers left, Reconstruction ended, and straight-up racism returned. A decade of gains for Black Americans in the South evaporated almost overnight as Jim Crow laws took over. And it wasn’t until the Civil Rights era nearly a century later that those hard-won rights once again began to return for Black Americans.
Ironically, Reconstruction ended as the United States was celebrating its 100th birthday, honoring a foundational document of soaring rhetoric that begins: “We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness ... " On July 4, 1776, those words applied mostly to white men of means. They apply to us all now. And that’s progress.
That progress occurs because we learn from history — all of it — when the nation was a beacon of democracy as well as when it behaved shamefully. Juneteenth became a federal holiday because a vast majority of our members of Congress — people of all colors and creeds — voted to make it so. And so, Juneteenth is a holiday for all Americans. A chance for all of us to celebrate how we’ve made this a better place for all citizens but to be chastened by the many ways in which we’ve failed. And to ponder how to do better, because it’s in our hands.
America is an active, ongoing experiment. The nation will become what we the people — all of us — make it. What we Americans do in the here and now to make it better will become U.S. history for the generations who will follow. Long after we’re all dead, our legacy will live on. Beginning right now, this Juneteenth, let’s make the generations not yet born proud of what we did — together — as Americans.
Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Paul Tash. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.