On January 1, 1863, Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation freed all enslaved people in the United States. But issuing the Proclamation and enforcing it were two different things.
Celebrations of emancipation occurred as the news spread across the country; there are records of "Jubilee" events occurring across the United States in the months after the Proclamation was issued. In 1863, Blacks who'd taken refuge at Fort Monroe, a Union stronghold, and other Black Virginians in the area gathered under an oak tree on what is now the campus of Hampton University to hear the reading of the Emancipation Proclamation. To this day, that tree is called the Emancipation Oak.
The news came much later to Texas, which was isolated geographically. Many planters and their enslaved people had migrated there to escape the fighting. From that outpost on the morning of June 19, 1865, the Proclamation was read to the enslaved people of Galveston, Texas, ending the last bastion of slavery.
Since then, Juneteenth has been a holiday with ups and downs, more recognized in southern states than in the north. Growing up in rural Maryland, I never heard of Juneteenth until I went to college in Virginia. But recently, Juneteenth has gained popularity and has been recognized in many states as a holiday, including Virginia, which formally proclaimed Juneteenth a state holiday effective this year.
So, what does Juneteenth mean to me? First, I realize the Juneteenth is not a celebration of an event - though it's been given a date - but a celebration of the concept of freedom. This is a freedom that, as a Black woman, allows me to revel in the accomplishments of some of my personal heroes and heroes - Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, W.E.B. DuBois, Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Fannie Lou Hamer, Angela Davis, John Lewis, Katherine Johnson, and Barack Obama. I marvel that from humble beginnings, my people have done great things to help build this nation, making positive contributions in the arts, sciences, politics, education, media, sports, business...you name it, we've touched it.
But as I look around at our world today, I realize that freedom is a fragile concept for which we must continually fight. I wonder if there ever will be a time when there will be "definitive" freedom for Black folks. When white parents across the country are lambasting school boards about their efforts to teach Black history, which must acknowledge racism both past and present, is that definitive freedom? When Black men are three times more likely to be killed by police than their white peers, is that definitive freedom? When white families have eight times the wealth of the typical Black family, have we achieved definitive freedom? When Black communities continue to be overpoliced and underfunded, is that definitive freedom?
So, as we approach Juneteenth, I recognize and appreciate all the freedoms that I do have - all the things that I have been able to accomplish. But I grow weary of those that say there is no such thing as "systemic racism," because I know there will not be true freedom until we face, acknowledge, and eradicate the systems that advantage one race of people over another. On Juneteenth, I'll celebrate the strides that have been made and recommit to fighting for a more just country - because I have the freedom to do so.