Juneteenth — the annual observance celebrating the end of slavery in the United States in 1865 — is a holiday that many Americans haven’t heard of until recently. That has caused some to wonder if it’s just some new “woke” holiday invented by Marxist academics, the creators of the historically inaccurate 1619 Project, or some other group on the left.
It is not.
Juneteenth has been celebrated since 1866, mostly by Black Americans; yet it’s a day that’s worthy of celebration by every American, as it represents a critical turning point in American history, not just Black history. It is the day that we as a people finally began to live up to one of the greatest principles we professed: a nation devoted to liberty for all.
Juneteenth — June 19, 1865 — was the day Union soldiers enforced President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and freed all remaining slaves in Texas. It was two months after the South’s official surrender in the Civil War and two and a half years after the proclamation went into effect.
Also called Freedom Day and Emancipation Day, Juneteenth evolved from a Texas celebration (where it’s an official state holiday) to a celebration of the end of slavery throughout the United States.
It has gained renewed interest as the nation works to mend race relations in America after a year of bitter protests and violent riots.
While some will undoubtedly use Juneteenth to push their “Hate America” agenda and racial division, Juneteenth has always been a day for recognizing America as an exceptional nation — a nation that, though flawed, was built on humanity’s highest ideals and endowed with a constitutional framework that allowed us to right our wrongs throughout our history.
Juneteenth also presents a teachable moment for our young people. It’s an opportunity to tell our youth the larger story of the history of slavery in America — not to shame or to divide, but to put it in its proper context as a considerable and formative part of American history that it truly was. Slavery was a part of who we were back then, and ridding ourselves of it and working toward equality for all is an integral part of who we have become. That history (and all too often, a lack of knowledge of it) still informs the debates we have today.
Juneteenth also gives us the opportunity to talk about how the principles of the founding — perfect principles espoused by imperfect people — and our constitutional order led this republic to ultimately fight against and reject slavery, and later, against segregation and the practice of separate but equal.
By having more complete discussions with our young people about such a critical part of our history and by teaching it factually but also within the context of American idealism, we can begin to wrest this issue from those who constantly try to use race as a wedge to divide Americans. Every nation has scars from its past, but we can use Juneteenth as a way to acknowledge our past faults, help heal current divisions, and move toward a future as a nation more united.
Finally, I want to end by telling a personal story about a beautiful woman named Agnes who was an ancestor of mine. Agnes was enslaved on a plantation in Virginia, where she endured unimaginable hardships and humiliating degradation as human chattel. But as my family retraced our history to Agnes and others, we uncovered some remarkable and inspiring stories of faith, courage, tenacity and perseverance. Agnes’ history is a part of my own, and she is always on my heart as I prepare to celebrate Juneteenth each year.
My family celebrates Juneteenth because we celebrate America. We celebrate the fact that even though Agnes suffered in bondage, America is the kind of nation that ultimately makes things right. We fought a war, we lost lives, we passed constitutional amendments, we changed systems, and we even achieved the hardest victory of all: We changed hearts.
I remember what Alexis de Tocqueville once said in “Democracy in America”: “The greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults.”
Let us look at Juneteenth just as we look at Independence Day — as a great turning point for freedom in our nation’s history, and one where we were willing to pay a heavy price to ultimately live out our highest ideals.
Juneteenth is an opportunity to recognize the struggles we have gone through as a people, the heights we have achieved, and the realization that we continue to be a work in progress, always striving together toward that beautiful vision of a nation that our Founders knew we could one day be.
• Kay C. James is president of The Heritage Foundation (heritage.org).
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