Yesterday was June 19th — the celebratory day on which African Americans and freedom loving Americans commemorate Juneteenth! Juneteenth represents the day when slaves in Texas found out they were freed by the Emancipation Proclamation.
To celebrate the day, some Black college students decide to have a small gathering in a common area in the dorm. Unusually, a white student decides that the moment is discriminatory against her and wants the celebration stopped — so she calls the police.
Campus police come into the area and inform the students that they are not only going to end the celebration, but they will be arrested for disturbing the white student’s peace. The also point out that the students are also in violation of the Fugitive Slave Act. The Black students will be detained until the police can sort out who owns them.
One student speaks up and says, “the whole point of the celebration is about freedom and the Emancipation Proclamation!” The cops inform the students that the proclamation was worthless then and it is worthless now. Lincoln had no authority to free any slaves in a confederate state. The students are shocked and unable to assert their rights as they are being handcuffed.
Two Black law students come into the common area and ask what’s happening. One of the students screams they’re trying to say we’re still slaves.
One cop tells the law students that the Emancipation Proclamation is not good law and has no effect here.
The law students look at each other incredulously and tell the cops that the 13th Amendment abolished slavery. The cops begrudgingly let the students go.
This is an extreme example (although given today’s climate not necessarily that far-fetched) of the difference between celebrating Juneteenth as African American Independence Day and recognizing Abolition Day as the day the 13th Amendment, the document that ended slavery was ratified.
The truth is that even though the Emancipation Proclamation was signed on June 5, 1863 and Juneteenth was first celebrated on June 19, 1865, it wasn’t until the 13th Amendment of the United States Constitution was ratified on December 6, 1865, that slavery truly ended.
Part of the Amendment states that “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”
The point of this is that while Juneteenth is an awesome day to celebrate freedom, we cannot allow the folklore surrounding one American president’s action to usurp the actual day on which African Americans became free from slavery. That day came with the ratification of the 13th Amendment. There are currently celebrations commemorating December 6th as Abolition Day throughout the country. Please be on the lookout for those festivities. We will also return and publicize those events in this space.
Finally, this is not to say we should not celebrate Juneteenth. African Americans should celebrate any day that reminds us of our freedom when we so often deal with micro-aggressions, as well as full-on racism. This is just to add the official day of freedom, December 6th as the day we really became free. And since we have that freedom, let’s celebrate in June and December and remind ourselves of our contributions to building this country in slavery and freedom. Let’s also take the time to understand we still have a long way to go.
Former NC Justice Center attorney Christopher Hill lives in Raleigh.