Juneteenth: A reflection on the white-washing of American history

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Juneteenth (short for “June Nineteenth”) marks the day when federal troops arrived in Galveston, Texas in 1865 to take control of the state and ensure that all enslaved people be freed. The troops’ arrival came a full two and a half years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. Juneteenth honors the end to slavery in the United States and is considered the longest-running African American holiday. On June 17, 2021, it officially became a federal holiday. Source: The History Channel. Photo credit: Bettmann Archive/Getty Images.

On June 17, President Joe Biden signed legislation officially establishing June 19 as Juneteenth National Independence Day — a federal holiday honoring the end of slavery.

Congress has not established a federal holiday since 1983 for Martin Luther King Day. After the House voted 415-14 to make Juneteenth a federal holiday and the Senate unanimously passed the bill, President Biden signed it into law in a historic move.  

History of Juneteenth and Celebrations 

On June 19, 1865, Union Major General Gordon Granger approached Galveston, Texas, and read General Order No.3, which announced all enslaved individuals were free. The order was necessary in disseminating necessary information to enslaved people, although it was hardly a beacon of equity and anti-racism. General Order No. 3 goes on to state: “They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.” His arrival came two years after the Emancipation Proclamation; however, slavery did not end after Juneteenth. 

Juneteenth is a monumental event in the liberation of enslaved individuals, but it also reveals how white slave owners lied to enslaved individuals in order to maintain slavery in the South, allowed by the lack of enforcement by Union soldiers. Furthermore, enslaved individuals liberated themselves. As Dr. Lopez Matthews of Howard University’s Moorland-Spingarn Library and Research Center noted, “African Americans were not just passive participants in their own liberation … it was those African Americans who learned about the Emancipation Proclamation [in Texas]  who essentially freed themselves, demanding their humanity and creating traditions to celebrate it after.”  

Opposition to Juneteenth 

The path to make Juneteenth a federal holiday was a long, strenuous one. For decades, activists such as the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation have sought to commemorate Juneteenth as a federal holiday. Although Congress has passed resolutions in the past honoring Juneteenth, it has been unable to secure it as a federal holiday until now, with unsuccessful attempts as recent as last year.  

In 2020, Republican senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin opposed making Juneteenth a federal holiday on the notion of the lost revenue that would follow giving government workers a day off. This year, he begrudgingly put aside his oppositions and voted with the rest of the senate to confirm Juneteenth as a federal holiday. 

[ Related: The mutual dependence of capitalism and white supremacy ]

In regards to his vote, he stated, “I support celebrating the emancipation of the slaves. I just didn’t really understand why the only way to do that is to give two million federal health care workers, that would cost $600 million a year, a day off. But apparently the rest of Congress wants to do that, so I won’t stand in the way.” 

Largely, the lack of curriculum on Black history in U.S. public school systems underscores the opposition and lack of knowledge regarding Juneteenth. For instance, a CBS News investigation revealed that seven states do not directly mention slavery in their standard for education while eight do not mention the civil rights movement. Further, only two states, Massachusetts and Maryland, mention white supremacy. It is hardly surprising, then, that Juneteenth remains largely untaught in schools. 

White-washing of American History 

Even as Juneteenth becomes a federal holiday, the white-washing of American history persists. Just two weeks ago, Georgia’s majority-white Board of Education sought to approve a resolution that seeks to ban teaching about systemic racism in schools. Notably, this resolution revokes the teaching that any race is inherently oppressive, that meritocracy is racist or sexist, that slavery constitutes the true founding of the United States, or several other ideas that disrupts the notion that the U.S. is a country free of systemic racism. Although Critical Race Theory is not mentioned throughout the resolution, the Board of Education avidly discussed it throughout the meeting.

[ Related: Our deep dive discussion about critical race theory available on our Patreon. Join for as little as $3/month to support our journalism and unlock all bonus episodes & coverage. ]

While the resolution does not yet directly prevent educators from teaching about systemic racism, it lends credence to the notion that systemic racism should not be taught in schools. Meanwhile, Florida has already passed a ban on critical race theory and the 1619 Project, a New York Times initiative that reframes American history around the arrival of the first enslaved individuals. Several other initiatives have already materialized in states such as Idaho, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Iowa. 

The banning of critical race theory is more fodder for right-wing politicians to take aim at, along with the 1619 Project. Many Republicans have outright refused or been unable to provide a definition for critical race theory. For instance, Sen. Rick Scott, who introduced a resolution defining critical race theory, only said, “I don’t think the Republican caucus has a definition.” 

However, it is more than a single idea or project that contributes to the white-washing of American history. Even without these bans, white supremacy is deeply entrenched in the American education system with the glorification of American leaders and slave-owners, lack of education on African American history, and continued positioning of America and its founders in a savior light. 

Even as Juneteenth represents a symbolic stride in commemorating a pivotal part of American history, there is still a long way to go.

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