Slavery ended for millions in the United States with the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment on December 6, 1865. But celebrations began earlier with the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, which freed only the enslaved African Americans in ten of the eleven Confederate states. However, news of the Proclamation took two and a half more years to reach all those eligible.
Commemorative souvenir of the Emancipation Proclamation, published by Strobridge Lithography Company. Image courtesy of Library of Congress and BlackPast.Org.
On June 19, 1865, the news reached Galveston, Texas, and more than 250,000 remaining enslaved black people were freed. Considered the second Day of Independence in America it was also known as Juneteenth, a portmanteau of June and nineteenth.
The first Juneteenth celebration occurred in Texas in 1866 with cookouts, games, parades, prayers, and singing. It was a time of reconnecting with lost family members.
Inevitably, Juneteenth celebrations spread across the South and west to California.
For 156 years, Juneteenth has been known in African American communities, but has only in the last few years begun to be more widely recognized. Texas was the first state in 1980 to declare Juneteenth a legal holiday. Most states today (49 plus DC) recognize Juneteenth as a holiday or observance; Illinois passed recognition in 2003. Two days ago, June 16th, the Federal government officially recognized Juneteenth as a national holiday.
Juneteenth also goes by Black Independence Day, Jubliee Day, Juneteenth National Freedom Day, and Juneteenth Independence Day.
Juneteenth 1865 is an important day in American history and marked a new and tenuous beginning. As a democracy is tenuous and requires vigilance, so does social justice.
Language and literary scholar Elaine Scarry has written on the relationships between beauty and justice. Beauty, in the philosophical sense, inspires Justice. Scarry established the manifold relationships leading from beauty to justice.
Justice as such is not available to be apprehended by the senses. It requires an aesthetic analogue. Scarry laid out just such an analogy between beauty and justice. (Diderot’s Encyclopédie of shared knowledge and Jefferson’s use of Neoclassical architecture to publicly represent Democracy are prime examples of beauty’s analogous relationships with justice.)
Scarry established “equality is the heart of beauty, and that equality is the morally highest and best feature of the world.”
“Beautiful things hold steadily visible the manifest good of equality and balance.”
Scarry cautioned that no claim was being made as to how long it might take—a year, a century, a millennium—for equality to inhere in social relations.
“All that is claimed is that the aspiration to political, social, and economic equality has already entered the world in the beauty-loving treatises, as has the readiness to recognize it as beautiful if and when it should arrive in the world.”
Juneteenth is a just beginning.
References Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture, “The Historical Legacy of Juneteenth,” https://nmaahc.si.edu/blog-post/historical-legacy-juneteenth
Fabiola Cineas, “Juneteenth explained,” Vox, 6/18/2020, https://www.vox.com/2020/6/18/21294825/history-of-juneteenth
Elaine Scarry, On Beauty and Being Just, The Tanner Lectures on Human Values, Yale University, March 25 and 26, 1998. https://tannerlectures.utah.edu/_documents/a-to-z/s/scarry00.pdf