Juneteenth: a personal reflection

Dr. Robert S. Smith, professor of history and director of the Center for Urban Research, Teaching and Outreach reflects on the struggle that led up to Emancipation Day and what the holiday represents today

Juneteenth is a remarkable holiday for many reasons; one being it marks the nation’s first attempt at a racial democracy. With the 13th Amendment eradicating slavery (except as punishment for a crime), the enshrining of birthright citizenship in the 14th Amendment and the expansion of voting rights in the 15th Amendment — the moment of abolition and the ensuing Reconstruction Era led to a Constitutional revolution. This moment also witnessed the first Black elected officials to local, state and federal offices across the South.

Juneteenth is a poignant reminder of the overwhelming significance of African American political participation and the persistent struggle to protect voting rights and meaningful political representation since 1865.

While voting and political representation are the cornerstones of our representative democracy, the creation of African American schools, businesses and churches — institutions that were illegal to have existed under slavery — became the purveyors toward a racially democratic society. Indeed, these institutions educated and politicized the Black electorate immediately post-abolition. Scholars have shown that it was Black political and economic power that spawned vicious forms of racial violence.

Juneteenth allows us to revisit the brilliance of this historical moment on terms dictated through the lenses of all those educators, politicians, entrepreneurs, families and communities who made emancipation, and therefore citizenship, a functioning reality, fraught as that journey has been.

That the United States failed to formally celebrate the eradication of race-based slavery until recently is odd, but not surprising. To celebrate its eradication would require acknowledging year after year that human bondage existed for over 100 years prior to the nation forming; that race-based slavery helped to shape the nation’s legal, political and social order for nearly a century after its founding, and its eradication played a central role in a bloody Civil War. Celebrating its eradication would cast a perpetual light on how deeply significant slavery was to the emergence of the United States and its lingering impact on race relations.

But, African Americans certainly celebrated the ending of chattel slavery, even if the rest of the nation looked the other way. Since the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, African Americans across the country have continually recognized the end of that abhorrent institution. Whether called Juneteenth, Emancipation Day, Freedom Day, Jubilee Day or other titles, celebrating slavery’s demise occurred in myriad forms. A momentous achievement whereby nearly 4 million people accessed tangible meanings of freedom and citizenship on their own terms should stand front and center in a country that heralds ideals like liberty, justice and democracy.