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Editorial: Juneteenth reminds us that the American story is full of progress and pain

The Editorial Board | Houston Chronicle | June 18, 2021

In the noble and necessary effort to consider American history through the prism of its original sin, slavery, the date June 19, 1865, has become an epochal moment.

That hallowed day in Galveston when Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger of the U.S. Army informed the people of Texas that all slaves had been freed is, in a sense, memorialized for its tardiness. Granger’s order was delivered more than two months after the end of the Civil War and more than two years after President Abraham Lincoln had effectively ended slavery with the Emancipation Proclamation.

“This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves,” Granger’s order read, “and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor.”

In many ways, we haven’t lived up to the promise of those milestones. Lincoln’s proclamation is forever etched in history as the document that ended the forced bondage that helped build this country, while Granger’s order was a reminder of our nation’s foundational value of “absolute equality” that we are still striving for 156 years later.

As recently as six months ago, the torpid progress toward that goal suffered yet another stunning setback. On Jan. 6, Confederate flags were marched through the U.S. Capitol by hundreds of insurrectionists whipped up by President Donald Trump to interrupt a Senate vote certifying the results of the presidential election. Hours after that horrific attack that left five dead, 147 Republican members of Congress still decided to subvert democracy by voting against accepting returns from all states.

And yet, on Tuesday, the U.S. Senate — a deliberative body that these days can’t agree that the sky is blue — unanimously passed a bill to recognize Juneteenth as a federal holiday. The bill then passed the U.S. House of Representatives on Wednesday, with only 14 Republican representatives voting against it, and President Joe Biden signed it Thursday. Juneteenth is the 11th national holiday recognized annually by the federal government.

The historic legislation was the culmination of years of bipartisan lobbying by two Congress members from Texas, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, a Houston Democrat, and Sen. John Cornyn, a Republican. Until recently, the bill was treated as a pipe dream, despite the fact that 47 states already consider Juneteenth a holiday. African Americans have been celebrating Juneteenth since 1866 and Texas was first to recognize it as a holiday in 1980.

While Jackson Lee’s steadfast advocacy — she has introduced the bill in every session of Congress for more than a decade — kept Juneteenth in the national conversation, Cornyn’s involvement was critical in getting it nationally recognized. The senator drew inspiration from a meeting last year with Opal Lee, a 94-year-old Black woman from Fort Worth who for years has hosted 2.5-mile walks in cities across the country to raise awareness about the effort to recognize Juneteeth as a federal holiday. The self-described “little old lady in tennis shoes gettin’ in everyone’s business,” swayed Cornyn to put his political muscle behind pushing the legislation past opposition from within his party. He helped persuade Sen. Ron Johnson. R-Wis., to drop his objection, allowing it to pass by unanimous consent.

But the 14 House votes against the Juneteenth bill show why federal recognition is so important. Though members defended their nay votes on semantics — they said the formal name of the holiday is too similar to that of the July 4th holiday — the objections track closely with the rhetoric of those who deny the existance of systemic racism and its enduring influence on housing, health, work and educational opportunities in America.

The ugly truth is that slavery was integral to laying the foundation of American prosperity, including here in Texas. Saying so doesn’t undermine the fact that other forces were at play too, such as democracy, the rule of law and business and social innovation, much of it driven by immigrants. Those things are frequently credited with the success of the American experiment. But not accepting that other, darker forces were also playing out is a kind of historical amnesia that robs our history of its full, flawed and ultimately inspiring dimensions.

That’s our concern with the bill Gov. Greg Abbott signed Wednesday — House Bill 3979 — that instructs teachers to only describe slavery and racism as “deviations from, betrayals of, or failures to live up to, the authentic founding principles of the United States.”

In other words, in the state that put Juneteenth on the map as a day of celebration, Texas public school teachers now appear forbidden from giving their students the full historic context of its origin: the racism that delayed the message of emancipation for so long.

“These innocent people,” James Baldwin wrote to his nephew in a 1962 essay, “… are, in effect, still trapped in a history which they do not understand; and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it.”

One of the best parts of America is that as a nation we continue to try to understand our past and to grow from it. But that progress comes only when we resist crosscurrents that would have us believe in a whitewashed history, in Texas and elsewhere.

The Juneteenth National Independence Day Act celebrates the fact that America is both a country that held millions of its people in bondage and one that sacrificed much to end slavery. That blood-stained history of pain and healing is reflected in Galveston, once the largest slave market west of New Orleans but now home to a beautiful mural marking Juneteenth as a pivotal moment in the history of our nation.

If we are ever to live up to Gordon Granger’s Juneteenth promise of absolute equality, we must be allowed to confront our history head on, and learn from it. By recognizing the new holiday, America has given itself an opportunity to measure its progress toward that goal every year from now on.


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