fb-pixel Skip to main content

With Juneteenth, some hope in a time of racial strife

A joyous celebration of freedom — and a path to a reckoning.

A visitor took a photograph on Wednesday of the Absolute Equality Mural in Galveston, Texas, the birthplace of Juneteenth. The mural was unveiled on Juneteenth 2021.Yi-Chin Lee/Associated Press

When President Biden signed a bill last year making Juneteenth a national holiday, he said, “I hope this is the beginning of a change in the way we deal with one another.”

It was, on one level, a burst of willful naivete. Our racial divide can feel as deep and irreconcilable as it has in decades.

But with the second federally recognized Juneteenth nearly upon us, let’s allow ourselves a touch of the president’s optimism. There is pain in this holiday. But there is joy too. And joy is a powerful thing.

Juneteenth celebrates the day — June 19, 1865 — that Union Major General Gordon Granger and his troops rode into Galveston, Texas’s, and announced that the Civil War had ended and enslaved people were free. For years, it was a holiday celebrated by Black Texans.


In her slim, affecting volume “On Juneteenth,” published last year, historian Annette Gordon-Reed remembered “red soda water,” barbecues, and parades in her stretch of East Texas. Gordon-Reed acknowledged feeling a “twinge of possessiveness” when people outside the state started celebrating the holiday. But she came to realize that Texas’ history was the nation’s. That her celebration was America’s.

Whether the country will truly embrace that celebration is yet to be seen. But the Senate vote to make Juneteenth a federal holiday was unanimous, and opposition in the House of Representatives was scant.

Some substantial slice of white America recoils at any mention of critical race theory or The New York Times’s “1619 Project.” But perhaps an homage to the quintessential American value — freedom — could yield a deeper understanding for the bondage that preceded it.

The country, no doubt, could use a deeper understanding. Surveys show Americans know far too little about the history of slavery. And the country doesn’t have an especially nuanced view of its lingering effects — a deep-seated racism and, for too many Black families, a punishing intergenerational poverty.


But the public is more open to the possibility of lingering effects than might be imagined. A Pew Research Center survey from 2019 found that 63 percent of Americans believe the legacy of slavery affects the position of Black people in America today.

Reparations remain a tough sell. But surveys show that millennials and members of Gen Z have significantly more liberal views on race and government intervention in societal problems than their parents and grandparents. A more tolerant and diverse country with a better feel for its history could bend toward justice with a broader understanding for our history and what is required to address it.

A federal holiday alone can’t be expected to do the work of social transformation, of course. But it can send a signal.

If Juneteenth can help to remind America of its torturous history with slavery — and offer up a bit of the joy and possibility of liberation — then maybe we can do what President Biden suggested. Maybe we can start to change the way we deal with one another.

Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.