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Editorial: Juneteenth should be a federal holiday

Posted by 
Virginian-Pilot
Virginian-Pilot
 2021-06-17
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Guests watch as the city of Newport News United Honor Guard raises the Juneteenth Flag during the Juneteenth Raising of the Flag ceremony at Newport News City Hall in Newport News on Monday. Kristen Zeis/The Virginian-Pilot

On Thursday, Juneteenth became a federal holiday. It is a fitting honor.

This is the second year that the annual celebration of a pivotal moment in the eradication of slavery will be officially marked in Virginia. Gov. Ralph Northam last year signed a bill to make Juneteenth a state holiday, which represents welcome progress.

But the emancipation of enslaved persons and the end to a brutal period of American history deserves better than state-by-state recognition. So it is meaningful that Juneteenth will serve that purpose as a national holiday.

Many are already familiar with Juneteenth, which is observed in Virginia today but officially recognized every June 19. It marks the date in 1865 when a Union general informed enslaved people in Galveston, Texas, that they were freed as a result of the Emancipation Proclamation.

President Abraham Lincoln had issued that order in 1863, in the midst of the Civil War, but it only had effect where Union troops held control. It took two years, five months and 18 days for Union forces to reach that coastal town in Texas and liberate a population still in bondage.

The 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, formally abolishing slavery, passed Congress in January 1865 and earned ratification by the requisite three-fourths of the states in December that year. So marked the end of one of the ugliest chapters of American history.

Yet, there is no annual celebration of that date. Rather, it was the freed former slaves in Texas who made Juneteenth a de facto holiday, as they gathered each year to mark the date of emancipation. It is only recently that it captured the nation’s attention.

That speaks to a general failing of history education in America, though hardly the only one. It is informative that something such as Juneteenth, widely celebrated among the country’s Black population and particularly in the South, would only recently gain a foothold in the public’s understanding of the American experience.

It was tragedy which served to open many American eyes. Last year’s murder of George Floyd by police officers in Minnesota sparked a national protest for Black equality and opened the door to a wider discussion about how Black history is included, or not, in the larger American story.

The Virginia General Assembly wasted no time in passing a law to make Juneteenth a state holiday, not only to mark the events of 1865, but to “recognize the significant roles and many contributions of African Americans to the commonwealth and the nation.”

A bill in Congress, sponsored by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, and Sens. Edward Markey, D-Mass., and John Cornyn, R-Texas, at last accomplished the same on the federal level. Congress passed the measure this week, clearing the way for President Joe Biden to make it official.

In the constant battle about American history — who writes it, the subject of its focus — Juneteenth stands out as an example of an event that should be central to our national experience but are marginalized, overlooked and ignored because they pertain to Black Americans.

Consider the 1921 Tulsa massacre, recently marked in centennial events this month, as an example. What should be a landmark in history books was only introduced to many Americans through “The Watchmen,” a fictional program broadcast on HBO last year.

Or look at the ongoing clashes about “Critical Race Theory,” an approach to instruction that’s about 40 years old and argues race and racism should be more prominently featured in curricula because of its central place in American history and society.

How could so horrific and traumatic an event as Tulsa be all but erased from our shared understanding of American history? How could it only be now, some 156 years later, that Americans are learning about Juneteenth and the reasons behind it?

Making Juneteenth a federal holiday won’t rectify that shortcoming, but it would give the occasion a more prominent spot on our national calendar, and perhaps move the country toward a better understanding of itself and its complicated legacy.

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