For African Americans, Juneteenth marks the end of Slavery and celebrations will abound. As white Americans, what does Juneteenth mean to us? How do we appropriately celebrate or honor this day? It was only last year, after Congress passed legislation designating June 19th a National holiday, that I endeavored to understand more about Juneteenth for myself. After all, I’d learned, many, many years ago, that it was the Emancipation Proclamation that put an end to Slavery.
I had much more to learn. In my white-centric version of Emancipation, Abraham Lincoln was the hero. He issued the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan 1, 1863, and enslaved people were free. But that was not exactly the case. In reality, it took almost two-and-a-half years for the Union Army to carry the order of freedom, let alone enforce it, to the border of the Confederacy. Not until June 19, 1865, when Union General Granger delivered the order in Galveston, Texas, the last remaining Southern slave state, was emancipation complete. For hundreds of thousands of people emancipation was delayed; on that day the freed people in Galveston celebrated.
The following year, formerly enslaved Texans organized the first “Jubilee Day” celebrations, and it became an annual tradition. But these came at a cost. Because Black people were not permitted to gather in public, celebrations were held in churches or on the outskirts of town; groups of African Americans also pooled their money to buy plots of land for Emancipation observances. “Jubilee Day” spread from Texas to neighboring states, and then to wherever African Americans migrated. In the 1890’s the name “Juneteenth” caught on, and observances ebbed and flowed over the decades. Juneteenth had a national revival in the late 1960’s-1970’s, celebrating African American freedom, culture and history.
Instead of Abraham Lincoln, the heroes of this story are the enslaved people who waited too long for freedom, and the generations of African Americans who, despite great odds, preserved this more accurate telling of the narrative and carried their ancestors’ celebratory tradition forward. Also heroic are the African Americans who pursued recognition for Juneteenth as the official National African American Independence Day it’s become.
White Americans should observe Juneteenth by making reparations. It’s a way to honor these heroes and participate in repair for the atrocities of slavery and its legacies that continue to harm African Americans and their communities today. As white individuals and families, we are beneficiaries of a legacy rooted in the enslavement of Africans and the myth of white superiority. We did not create it but we can’t help but be advantaged by it.
Federal reparations are long overdue. HR40, the first step in that direction, has yet to become law. Nevertheless, California has legislated its own reparations commission, and a number of cities, churches, colleges, universities, financial institutions and corporations also are grappling with their roles in slavery and undertaking paths to repair. We can do that too.
The National African American Reparations Commission (NAARC) has been a leader in the reparations movement for years. Its work includes helping to write the current version of HR40, the Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans Act; drafting a comprehensive 10-Point Reparations Plan as a model for what federal reparations might look like when adopted; consultation nationwide on reparations projects. NAARC was instrumental, for instance, in advising the City of Evanston IL on its landmark reparations program.
The Fund for Reparations NOW! (FFRN!) founded in 2019, is a national grassroots community of white people, allied behind NAARC, to practice the principles of reparation, including apology, repair, and non-repetition of harms. FFRN!’s primary focus is raising money for Black-led reparations projects that align with NAARC’s 10-Point Plan, and is focused initially on Point # 9, Preserving Black Sacred Sites and Monuments.
Funds have gone to the Elaine Legacy Center in Elaine Arkansas, site of the 1919 Elaine Race Massacre, to restore their historic community building and museum as a center for remembrance and education, and to the Hamilton Hood Foundation, restoring and preserving the abandoned antebellum Pierce Memorial Chapel African-American Cemetery in Harris County Georgia. Future plans include funding to the Chattahoochee Brick Company Descendants Coalitions’ for a sacred site and convict lease labor museum on the old Chattahoochee Brick Company grounds.
I’m on the Board of FFRN! but it is not the only venue for white people of conscience and goodwill to make reparations. Reparations4Slavery is another excellent portal with links to many options and resources. However we choose, white people should honor the holiday by making reparations.
This Juneteenth HR40 also needs our support. We must heed the call from Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX), the bill’s sponsor, for Americans of all backgrounds to send a “wave, a tsunami of tweets and emails” to Congress and the White House for President Biden to sign HR40 into law by Executive Order this June 19th.
Why not start an annual Juneteenth tradition of our own, one with words and deeds arcing towards a more perfect union, a better life for us and for the generations of Americans to come?