Juneteenth: A complex commemoration of emancipation and unfulfilled promises

By the Rev. Dr. Dorothy Sanders Wells 

(Editor’s note: This is a reprint from 2022) 

On June 15, 2021, the U. S. Senate voted unanimously to make Juneteenth a federal holiday. Following a 2020 in which our nation saw the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd and Breonna Taylor in the midst of a global pandemic, the Senate’s 2021 vote responded to a need to create a holiday to acknowledge the emancipation of black persons on this soil.

But the choice of Juneteenth as the date to commemorate the emancipation of enslaved black persons seems to be a questionable one, and too many Americans who don’t really know history seem to be under the false impression that Juneteenth marked the true end of slavery in this country. 

That notion is not true. There were still slaves — legally-held slaves — after Juneteenth.

Congratulations to BBG and Dorothy Wells for an award in the Best of 2022 Associated Church Press Best of the Church Press Awards.

So why did our nation’s lawmakers choose that date to recognize emancipation?

Let’s start with a bit of history. Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, perhaps a questionable but certainly effective use of his wartime powers, declared freedom of enslaved persons in the rebelling (Confederate) states effective January 1, 1863. The Emancipation Proclamation was only effective in those rebelling states; slavery in Union states and four border states (Missouri, Kentucky, Delaware and Maryland) was not affected by the Proclamation. In one of the rebelling states — Texas — news of the emancipation of 250,000 slaves was apparently deliberately suppressed. Juneteenth marks the arrival of Union forces in Texas on June 19, 1865, bearing the news of emancipation — 2 ½ years after the Emancipation Proclamation, and two months after the end of the Civil War. The intentional suppression of the news of emancipation from enslaved persons in Texas may also explain why it appears from census records that slaveholders from other states actually fled to Texas with their slaves after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued – to ensure that the enslaved persons would continue to be enslaved.

That slavery held an economic stronghold on this country which seemed to overcome any religious or moral sensibilities seems evident. Scholar David W. Blight, Professor of American History at Yale University, has been quoted by Ta-Nehisi Coates as stating that “by 1860, there were more millionaires (slaveholders all) living in the lower Mississippi Valley than anywhere else in the United States. In the same year, the nearly 4 million slaves on American soil were worth some $3.5 billion, making them the largest single financial asset in the entire U.S. economy, worth more than all manufacturing and railroads combined.” That fact certainly might explain the suppression of the news of emancipation to enslaved persons in Texas for 2½ years. Perhaps the surprise is that there weren’t even more states in which the truth of emancipation was suppressed. 

While most non-rebelling states did act to end slavery after 1863, legal slavery continued until it was abolished by the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution on December 18, 1865. Delaware and Kentucky, having voted not to ratify the Thirteenth Amendment, were, of course, still subject to it after its ratification; enslaved persons in both states were free in December 1865. Neither state formally voted to ratify the Amendment until 1901 and 1976, respectively. But those two states were not the last to formally ratify the Thirteenth Amendment; that “honor” is held by the state with the largest population of slaves in 1860 — Mississippi. And Mississippi did not vote to ratify the Thirteenth Amendment until 1995 (though through some error, the vote to ratify was not communicated to the National Archives, and was not recorded until 2013.). 

It is important to note that for two territories that sought statehood in the midst of the Civil War — West Virginia and Nevada — statehood was conditioned on emancipation. The state of West Virginia was the first state to be entered into the United States as a state in which there would be no slavery; Nevada became the second. And, both new states voted promptly to ratify the Thirteenth Amendment — West Virginia, on February 3, 1865, and Nevada, on February 16, 1865. 

For whatever reasons we choose to commemorate Juneteenth, it should be abundantly clear that we are not commemorating the end of slavery. But Juneteenth is a date that is significant in our history: It speaks not only to the intentional suppression of the truth of emancipation to enslaved persons in Texas, but to all of the unfulfilled promises of Reconstruction, when Black people believed that emancipation would have meaning. Instead, the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution that abolished slavery, granted citizenship, afforded due process, and guaranteed the right to vote to African persons on this soil gave way instead to a legacy of segregation and Jim Crow laws that mandated separation — separate schools and learning, separate neighborhoods, separate entrances into public buildings, separate seating on public transportation, separate public accommodations. Race massacres — from Memphis, in 1866 to Tulsa, in 1921 — saw the destruction of Black-owned homes, businesses, schools and houses of worship. After the election of the first Black Senator and Congressmen — all from the South, during Reconstruction — voting rights were suppressed, and many brave and faithful persons gave their lives just in order for Black persons to be able to cast their votes in public elections, a right that was given in the Fifteenth Amendment. Those who would empower themselves to be judge, jury and executioner lynched Black persons with impunity during the 19th and 20th centuries — at what were too often spectator events. Whatever we may have hoped of emancipation, emancipation was not freedom. 

Juneteenth was not freedom.

Indeed, for all who still live in the shadows, the margins and underserved communities, for all who continue to be discriminated against, for all who continue to be profiled and unjustly accused, for Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, for nine persons whose lives were taken in Charleston’s Emanuel A.M.E. Church, for ten persons whose lives were taken in a Buffalo grocery store, Juneteenth becomes a day of remembrance of and mourning for all of the ways in which humankind has stood in opposition to freedom and justice. 

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