On June 19, 1865, Union General Gordon Granger stepped onto the balcony of the Ashton Villa in Galveston, Texas, and read aloud from General Order No. 3: “The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free.” This declaration, as the tale goes, forever ended slavery in the United States more than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation. Texans began celebrating June 19 as a holiday as soon as the following year calling it Freedom Day, Jubilee Day, or the simple portmanteau of the date that most people still use today: Juneteenth.
Though it’s been popular to celebrate in Texas since its inception, the last few years have seen the holiday’s popularity rapidly increasing nationwide. Fueled by the Black Lives Matter movement, social media, and even television — most notably by Donald Glover’s Atlanta and Kenya Barris’ Blackish each dedicating an episode to it — Juneteenth is now so widely recognized that it seems poised to take on a new role within the American zeitgeist, one in which we see fit to celebrate the end of slavery together as a nation.
Said actor, model, and activist Indya Moore, “This is an important day and an essential celebration,” continuing, “Juneteenth should have been a national holiday.”
2020 seems a singularly auspicious year for Juneteenth. For a nation still gripped by the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, a holiday representing Black freedom seems particularly enticing. And despite all of the still unmet demands — like the arrest of Breonna Taylors’ murderers — we do have two major changes to federal policy that, on the surface, seem so worthy of celebration: the landmark supreme court decision that protects LGBTQIA+ citizens from discrimination and President Trump’s executive order covering police reform.
Though Juneteenth could offer all of us a respite from this taxing revolution, it also serves as a reminder of how changes in American federal policy don’t always translate into tangible changes in our communities that we so desperately need. Just as Juneteenth has a much more sinister history than many know, federal policy frequently does far less for the American people than we would hope.
General Order No. 3 was not even required to make slavery illegal in the state of Texas. By the time General Granger rode into Galveston with 2,000 federal troops, slavery had already been illegal there for nearly two and a half years. This was due to the January 1863 enaction of what is commonly called the Emancipation Proclamation, an executive order of the Lincoln administration that abolished slavery in confederate states.
This means that the only reason that General Order No. 3 was even necessary is that white slaveholders simply chose to ignore federal law rather than release the 250,000 people bound by chattel slavery in the state of Texas.
In addition, there were several Union-controlled slave states like Maryland, Delaware, Kentucky, and Missouri that went completely unaffected by emancipation up until the 13th amendment was ratified. That means that slavery was still perfectly legal in territory clearly governed by the United States until December 1865.
Last Tuesday, President Trump signed an executive order enacting limited reform to policing in the States. But under similar scrutiny as we might dissect the history of the abolition of slavery, this order begins to feel purposefully lacking. Rather than require literally anything to change that would apply to police nationwide, it merely incentivizes individual police forces to make policy changes at their will. Even the proposed national registry to track police misconduct proposed within the order comes with no penalty for non-compliance. This means that, much like the slave owners in Texas who simply chose to ignore the Emancipation Proclamation, police departments can simply not report any behavior they so chose with impunity.
While the move towards police reform does show a welcome awareness on the part of the federal government, this order leaves little doubt that the American people will see little tangible change until the current systems of policing are dismantled and replaced with new measures to ensure public safety. Policing as we know it today was created to ensure that Black Americans would continue to be controlled despite the end of slavery, and this system that is racist by design cannot be reformed by simply asking them to behave appropriately. If that was possible, we wouldn’t still be demanding change.
And while this supreme court decision will certainly offer some legal protections to LGBTQIA+ Americans, its reach only eclipses the workplace and even excludes companies with fewer than 15 employees. Though we can count it as an incredible victory, there remain huge gaps in basic civil rights protections. We can see this particularly surrounding issues of discrimination within housing and healthcare where LGBTQIA+ Americans are still not guaranteed the same protections as other citizens.
As much as Juneteenth can remain a celebration of Black freedom, maybe 2020 is the year that it also becomes a reminder of how vigilant we must remain in order to seize that to which we are entitled. Neither of these two brand new pieces of American federal policy offers sweeping protections to the communities they are intended to placate, and if we take another look at them through the same lens with which we can analyze the history of Juneteenth, we can see how much we still have to change. But thankfully we are also given the opportunity to see the direction we must go from here come into a much sharper focus.