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Renée Graham

Celebrating Juneteenth — our true independence day

Civil War re-enactors Lt. James Hayes, from left, Samuel Stephenson and Marvin-Alonzo Greer participate in a Juneteenth celebration at the Atlanta Cyclorama and Civil War Museum in Atlanta.
Civil War re-enactors Lt. James Hayes, from left, Samuel Stephenson and Marvin-Alonzo Greer participate in a Juneteenth celebration at the Atlanta Cyclorama and Civil War Museum in Atlanta.(Kent D. Johnson/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP/File)

Alabama and Florida observed Jefferson Davis Day this month for the president of the disgraced Confederacy. Most Southern states have a Confederate Memorial Day. Texas calls its similar holiday Confederate Heroes Day, which sounds like a celebration of oxymorons. Alabama and Mississippi have Robert E. Lee Day — on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

In a nation where there are official state holidays for treason and ignominious defeat, Juneteenth deserves far more recognition.

June 19, or Juneteenth as it is known in African-American communities, marks the day in 1865 when Union Army General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas and issued an order emancipating the last enslaved people. Geographically remote, Texas was a holdout for two years after President Abraham Lincoln issued his proclamation in 1863, declaring “all persons held as slaves. . . shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.”

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Juneteenth celebrates their liberation and, more broadly, the emancipation of four million African-Americans from bondage.

At the end of the Civil War, there was a fragile hope that America would redeem itself into a nation of equity, inclusion, and reconciliation.

We know how that worked out.

From the white supremacist sabotage of the Reconstruction era through mass incarceration and voter suppression today, this nation has yet to fully recognize the horrors inflicted on those once treated as property, and its present-day repercussions.

This is why Juneteenth isn’t a mainstream celebration. It’s too much of a reminder of this nation’s festering sins to be venerated in a country that likes its history noble and sanitized.

That’s not to say that Juneteenth is ignored. In most states, the day (or the weekend before) is marked with festivals, parades, workshops, sporting events, and concerts. Boston and other Massachusetts towns and cities will host numerous events, including the 9th annual Emancipation Observance at the Museum of The National Center of Afro-American Artists on Wednesday.

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In 1980, Texas became the first state, in 1980, to designate Juneteenth as a holiday. Massachusetts recognized Juneteenth Independence Day in 2007, becoming the 25th state to do so with a proclamation signed by former Governor Deval Patrick, the state’s first African-American chief executive. Now more than 40 states and Washington D.C. recognize Juneteenth.

Still, it does not receive the kind of honeyed rhapsodizing that accompanies Independence Day. I’m sure I’m not the only African-American who regards July 4 with deep ambivalence. (That same unease fueled Frederick Douglass’s famous 1852 speech, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”) More than 80 years after the Declaration of Independence was signed, black people remained in chains. Thomas Jefferson, who wrote “All men are created equal,” owned hundreds of enslaved people.

As a day marking American independence, July 4 is incomplete. Only with the freeing of those enslaved thousands in Texas could this nation try to claim Jefferson’s lofty words as its own.

That’s why Juneteenth should be a national holiday. And, yes, I do recognize that, under the current administration, that’s about as likely as the president telling the truth.

Though it will always have special meaning for black people, it is a quintessentially American observation. Juneteenth is a testament to the perserverance that defines the American spirit. It honors the long and still-unfinished road to freedom and self-determination for all. That should have particular resonance with so many rights again under assault from this government.

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Juneteenth shares this month with D-Day’s anniversary and LGBTQ Pride celebrations. It is no less of a seminal event than what happened on a beach in France in 1944 or a gay bar in New York 50 years ago. All are about freedom, yet it will receive the least attention. And that means another opportunity is lost for this nation to wrestle honestly with its legacy of slavery.

Just as debates about reparations aren’t as much about payouts as reckoning with the racism that pollutes every system and institution nationwide, Juneteenth pushes America to make real the promise of that 1865 day when, if only for a fleeting moment, every American finally felt free.

Older than Veterans Day, more American than St. Patrick’s Day — and a clapback to every spiteful Confederate holiday — Juneteenth is America’s only true Independence Day.


Renée Graham can be reached at renee.graham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham.