On Jan. 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing enslaved people in Southern states that seceded from the Union, but not in Union slave states like Maryland, Delaware, Kentucky and Missouri.
When the Civil War ended on April 9, 1865, with the surrender of Gen. Robert E. Lee at the Appomattox Court House, the institution of slavery ended only conceptually.
On June 19, 1865, Union soldiers arrived in Galveston, Texas, with the news that enslaved Americans were free. This day has been commemorated as Juneteenth—or the day when American chattel slavery ended for all Black people in this country.
A lesser-known holiday celebrated on April 16 in Washington, D.C., called Emancipation Day, commemorates the signing of the District of Columbia Compensated Emancipation Act in 1862, which resulted in the emancipation of approximately 3,100 enslaved African Americans in Washington, D.C.
(There is an annual service in the Black community in Indianapolis that celebrates Emancipation Day on Jan. 1 of each year, commemorating the Emancipation Proclamation’s issuance.)
Made an official federal holiday only last year, Juneteenth by tradition remains the oldest commemoration of the larger Black community’s freedom. Gov. Eric Holcomb signed an executive order in 2020 recognizing Juneteenth as a state holiday.
What I appreciate most about the commemoration of Juneteenth is that the Black community collectively celebrates the day slavery ended for all Black people—not just the Black people who experienced freedom in 1862 or 1863. But I also appreciate that our community celebrates when any Black people were freed through federal action.
That many people learned that emancipation ended slavery and are unaware of Juneteenth is another example of why we need to improve education in other communities in Indiana and the nation.
One great irony of the traditional celebration of American independence on the Fourth of July is that so many people were excluded from the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness extolled in the Declaration of Independence.
Frederick Douglass, the great 19th century orator and abolitionist who escaped from slavery as a young man, would famously deliver the “What, to the Slave, is the Fourth of July?” speech in 1852. He would answer his own question, noting that, to the slave, July 4 was “a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim.”
I hasten to add that, in the struggle of Black people in America, we have been more warriors for freedom than “victims.”
Black people would not be legally recognized as citizens until the ratification of the 14th Amendment in 1868, although the equality of our citizenship remains a battlefront to this day.
But on Juneteenth, the Black community—I think all Americans—can and should celebrate the perfecting of our Union that is embodied in the last enslaved Americans’ learning of their freedom in Galveston on June 19, 1865.
After all, there are few things more American than celebrating the idea of freedom.•
Wolley is president and CEO of Black Onyx Management, Inc. Send comments to email@example.com.
Click here for more Forefront columns.