If Any Day Deserves Celebration for Ending Slavery, it's Today.
If any day deserves celebration for ending slavery, it is: December 6, 1865. Today is the 156th anniversary of the 13th Amendment’s ratification.
Growing up, Juneteenth was a big deal. Living in a homogeneous suburb of Cleveland, OH called Strongsville, church was the only time I was around folks who looked like me. There were seemingly endless meetings and preparation. There were barbecues and gatherings after service, perpetual discussions about what the day meant to our community and our liberation. I never learned about Juneteenth in school and anyone I knew who was not of African descent did not seem to care about the day.
Now that I am older and have reflected, the idea of celebrating Juneteenth in its current form makes zero sense. Its presence as the newest federal holiday is confusing. Slavery did not end on June 19, 1865 when enslaved persons in Galveston, TX learned that the Civil War had ended. So why do we celebrate Juneteenth?
It is a common misinterpretation of history, preserving legacies, and how laws are applied in the U.S. While the day holds historical and cultural significance folks of African descent, enslaved persons learning that the Civil War was over in June 1865 had zero constitutional and legal impact on the institution of slavery.
Despite the Emancipation Proclamation, President Abraham Lincoln did not free any slaves
Dubbed “the most misunderstood document in American history” by Lonnie Bunch (Director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African-American History and Culture), the Emancipation Proclamation of January 1st 1863 was a military measure. It did not apply to border slave states such as Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri. These states were loyal to the Union. Lincoln also explicitly exempted selected areas of the Confederacy already under Union control, an attempt to appease white folks in these states. The Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 only applied to places where the Union had no authority or control: Southern states in the Confederacy fighting against the Union.
This is akin to myself being at war with my neighbors and declaring that all of their pets are now free. While it may sound great to the pets depending on their living conditions, I have no authority to enforce or maintain what I am saying.
With this limited reach, the Union realized the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 had no constitutional basis once the war ended. On June 20, 1865, one day after Juneteenth, slavery was still legal in border states such as Delaware and Kentucky despite enslaved persons in Galveston, TX being informed that they were free. There was no legal basis for this claim. Thus, both houses of Congress passed the 13th Amendment in January 1865 and it was ratified on December 6, 1865. States mentioned above not covered by the Emancipation Proclamation, such as Delaware and Kentucky, were now forced to abolish slavery with the rest of the country as the Constitution and its amendments are the supreme law of the land.
So if Lincoln did not free any slaves, why were there celebrations on June 19, 1865? Why is a day like Juneteenth celebrated when the forces behind it held zero constitutional and legal authority to end slavery? To me, it is meant to preserve and glorify the legacy of President Lincoln and continue the misinformation that he freed enslaved persons. Yes, the Emancipation Proclamation was a step in the right direction, but it had no legal basis to end slavery. Taking a look at history, specifically the constitutional and legal, tell us otherwise. If the Emancipation Proclamation freed enslaved persons, you would not need the 13th Amendment.
Imagine if folks celebrated the federal guarantee of a woman’s right to vote before August 20, 1920 when the 19th amendment was ratified.
Imagine if folks celebrate the federal guarantee of interracial marriage before June 12, 1967 when SCOTUS announced the Loving v. Virginia decision.
Imagine if folks celebrated the federal guarantee of the right to vote at 18 before July 1, 1971 when the 26th Amendment was ratified.
Imagine if folks celebrated the federal guarantee of a woman’s right to choose before January 22, 1973 when SCOTUS announced the Roe v. Wade decision.
Imagine if folks celebrated the federal legalization of gay marriage before June 26, 2015 when SCOTUS announced the Obergefell v Hodges decision.
Celebrating the federal guarantees before the days mentioned above would make no sense. So why do we do it with the vile institution of slavery?
Should we stop celebrating Juneteenth and deprive ourselves of a chance to gather and fire up the grill? No. But we must continue to understand and clearly examine why such a day holds reverence when zero constitutional or legal authority existed to end the very institution we celebrate the day for doing.
If any day deserves celebration for the end of slavery, it is December 6, 1865 when the 13th Amendment was ratified.