Observing slavery’s end fitting

Biden signs bill making Juneteenth federal holiday

Galveston, Texas, sits on the Lone Star State’s southeast coast, situated on two islands off the mainland.

When June 19, 1865, dawned, Galveston was sophisticated enough that it had its own insurance company and Catholic parochial school, and its streets were illuminated by gas lights.

But the city was sufficiently off the beaten path that slavery was still in full force there, more than two months after the Civil War had ended and more than two years after Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.

On that day, Gordon Granger, a Union general, marched into Galveston and announced that the slaves toiling there were free.

No longer could Blacks in Galveston be held in bondage under the laws of the United States.

They were apparently the last American slaves to be informed of their freedom, and in the 156 years since, June 19 has been formally and informally marked as “Juneteenth,” a day designed to celebrate the shattering of slavery in the United States and reflect on how far the country still has to go for all citizens to receive the equality promised in our founding documents.

Juneteenth is marked in 47 states, including Pennsylvania, and President Joe Biden signed legislation Thursday to make it a federal holiday, the first new one since the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. was made a federal holiday almost four decades ago.

It’s appropriate to have Juneteenth as a federal holiday.

As we mark our independence on July 4, June 19 can be a reminder that the ancestors of millions of Americans came here in chains, and their uncompensated labor helped build the country.

It can also serve as a reminder that the emancipation of Blacks was far from complete at the end of the Civil War, and true equality remains a work in progress.

Over the last year or so, opponents of public health measures to help curb the spread of COVID-19 have compared measures like wearing a mask to slavery.

This is, of course, beyond absurd. Behaving in a way that is socially responsible while a deadly pandemic is raging is not comparable to slavery by any stretch of the imagination.

In fact, probably no one alive in the United States today can really appreciate the dehumanizing horror of slavery. Imagine being bought and sold in the marketplace and being treated as chattel rather than a human being. Imagine having no basic autonomy, being denied a basic education and being on the receiving end of terrible abuse. You can read about it, watch dramas and documentaries about it, but to truly comprehend the bone-deep horrors of what slavery was like and how it must have felt is almost certainly beyond our grasp.

That’s a thought to keep in mind as Juneteenth is marked this year.

Slavery was a fact of life in the United States long ago. But when you consider that the last Americans who were born in slavery died as recently as the 1960s and 1970s, it wasn’t that long ago.


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