This editorial was published by the Everett (Wash.) Herald.
We’re betting that more than a few of our readers might be a little hazy on the significance of Juneteenth, celebrated on June 19 and marking a significant step in the end of slavery in the United States.
On more than a few points of American history, many Americans, including your author, are in need of a refresher course or two from time to time.
The Juneteenth date doesn’t represent the day that President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation took effect; that’s Jan. 1, 1863; or when the 13th Amendment was adopted and officially ended slavery nationwide on Dec. 18, 1865.
The day it celebrates is specific to Texas; June 19, 1865, marks the arrival of U.S. Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger and his troops in that state with orders to free those still enslaved there. As Afi-Odelia Scruggs, an independent journalist writing recently for The Washington Post explains, following the end of the Civil War, as Union troops retook territory across the South, they emancipated those still held as slaves in the former Confederate states. In fact, the last slaves to be freed in the U.S. were held in Northern states, such as Kentucky and Delaware, and weren’t freed until the 13th Amendment’s adoption.
Scruggs further explains that Juneteenth celebrations haven’t been consistently celebrated over the last 155 years, largely driven underground during the Jim Crow era when segregation made observation of the unofficial holiday difficult, if not dangerous, to observe.
There’s an opportunity now, prompted by Juneteenth and other such anniversaries but also by surging interest in the Black Lives Matter movement, to improve our knowledge of African American history, but also the history of all American cultures.
While we’re on the subject, let’s make clear what the words “Black Lives Matter” actually mean, and why the response, “but all lives matter,” is not helpful to the discussions we need to have on race, racism and our shared American history.
The words “Black Lives Matter” are a call that more attention is deserved regarding African Americans’ struggles with systemic racism, especially now, following a steady drum beat of minorities’ fatal encounters with law enforcement, among other instances of inequality. Of course, all lives should matter, but history — long past and recent — show a poor record in recognizing and correcting inequities and unfairness faced by African Americans, as it does for Latinos, Asian Americans, Native Americans and other minorities.
Responding with “all lives matter” simply ends the discussion without recognizing the harms of racism and inequality that remain even more than 150 years after slavery’s abolition.
Confronting and correcting that racism requires an understanding of history that recognizes American failures and triumphs, individually and as a society.
The Trump administration, if belatedly, appeared to recognize the poor optics of initially planning a campaign rally in Tulsa, Okla., for Friday, before rescheduling the rally to Saturday because of the Juneteenth date.
Juneteenth’s commemoration in the Tulsa area is cause for celebration but also mourning as that city prepares to mark the 100th anniversary of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, in which a white mob killed as many as 300 residents of Tulsa’s Greenwood district, leveling the affluent black neighborhood.
That and other race massacres in American history — including the Nov. 10, 1898, riot in Wilmington, N.C., in which white supremacists murdered as many as 60 people, torched a black-owned newspaper office and other businesses and overthrew and replaced black leaders elected two days before as part of the Reconstruction — can be uncomfortable lessons to review, but they remain part of an American history that needs our attention.
It’s common to excuse our unfamiliarity with such events as something that simply wasn’t covered when we were in school. True, there’s a lot that wasn’t and likely still isn’t covered in history and social studies classes. It wasn’t until 2015, for example, that Washington state lawmakers passed legislation that requires instruction in Native American curriculum, developed with guidance from the 29 federally recognized tribes in the state. “Since Time Immemorial” now provides that instruction at all levels of the state’s K-12 public schools.
But it’s unrealistic to put responsibility for a better understanding of history on schools alone; that’s an education that has to be lifelong.
We as Americans need to make our history part of our daily lives. Those teachable moments are not hard to find. Documentaries and discussions of current events are common offerings on TV channels, especially on PBS, TVW and others. Newspapers and magazines, in print and online, peg stories about historical events to anniversaries and news coverage. Those who enjoy family genealogy projects, tracing their roots through DNA analysis, can deepen their knowledge of their own cultural heritage and its history.
We’ll even give the president credit — as he has himself — for having made Juneteenth “very famous.”
Regardless of how we get to class, the study of our American history is part of the education necessary to confronting our faults, celebrating our accomplishments and getting to the point where all lives really do matter.