What does Juneteenth mean to me?


By Justin Schwartz, Harold and Inge Marcus Dean of Engineering

Today marks the 155th Anniversary of the arrival of the Union army into Galveston, Texas, freeing the last of the slaves, a long and nationally painful two and a half years after President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. On this day, which is now known as Emancipation Day or, more commonly Juneteenth, Major General Gordon issued General Order No. 3, which stated in part “The people of Texas are informed that in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection therefore existing between them becomes that between employer and free laborer.”

The events of Juneteenth have not been widely taught in American history, and many Americans are only now learning about its significance because of current events. I will not elaborate much on the history — historians and scholars with deep knowledge and understanding of the events and significance of the day have written wonderful pieces from which you can learn much more. I encourage you to read today’s message from President Barron and to reference the curated list of resources from the University Libraries. Also worth reading is an interesting Schreyer Honor’s College thesis by Robin E. Hoecker from 2002.

I would like to take a moment and share what Juneteenth means to me personally, and what lessons I draw from this moment in our history. I have always loved American history, so I appreciate the indulgence of those of you who read on.

First and foremost, Juneteenth teaches me that while we tend to remember “moments,” real change requires hard work over long periods of time, and usually far too much time. Today we still have not implemented the terms of General Order No. 3. Most Americans know about Lincoln signing the Emancipation Proclamation, but slaveholders responded by moving their slaves deeper and deeper into the south, attempting to prevent their emancipation as long as possible in hopes of winning the Civil War.

Juneteenth reminds me that it took two and a half years to free all of the slaves, and in that time period, slaves continued to suffer the horrendous abuses of slavery. This is a cycle that repeats itself again and again in U.S. history.

Fast forward 89 years to 1954. Many Americans know of the historic moment when the Supreme Court ruled on Brown versus Board of Education of Topeka, declaring unanimously that racial segregation of children in public schools was unconstitutional and, more broadly, establishing the precedent that the “separate-but-equal” concept is unconstitutional. But this landmark ruling did not change anything overnight, and years of struggle ensued.

Ten years later, the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act were passed in 1964 (one year before I was born!), but the goals of these legislative accomplishments are still not met, and we continue to see our fellow Americans struggle for their most basic rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

In 2008 we experienced another “moment,” the election of an African American President, and the media began describing America as “post-racial,” falling into the trap of focusing on the moment, and not the underlying need for long-term systemic change.

There is a second lesson of Juneteenth that I’d like to share. At the beginning of the Civil War, neither Lincoln, nor many of the Union leaders, viewed the war as a battle to end slavery; the focus was on keeping the Union together, and there were many public disclaimers aimed at keeping the slave-owning border states from joining the Confederacy. To a large extent, subsequent emancipation was the result of enslaved people who escaped the south during the war and joined the Union army; some estimate that more than 500,000 former slaves who joined the Union army and help change the mindset of Union leadership.

This is a clear reminder to me that change is driven by those with the will and determination to demand change, and while it requires open-minded leadership, the most important force comes from those demanding progress. Black people of the Civil War era knew that slaveowners would not simply open the doors and watch them walk away. They knew they would literally have to fight for freedom.

As I think of these lessons in the context of current events, I believe that we now find ourselves in another “moment.” How will we respond? Will this be a passing moment without long-term impact, or will this “moment” be an inflection point in American history?

I believe the answer lies in how we respond. We need strong allyship. We need long-term commitment. We need to be open-minded, to engage in open dialogue, and to actively listen. The challenges we face are great, and the bigger the challenges, the greater the urgency. On Juneteenth, let us recognize what Dr. King referred to as the “fierce urgency of now,” and work together to ensure that what is happening in this “moment” has lasting impact.

I’ll end simply with a wonderful quote from novelist and scholar Ralph Ellison (with thanks to Civil and Environmental Engineering Professor Shelley Stoffels for sharing):

“Nothing ever stops; it divides and multiplies, and I guess sometimes it gets ground down superfine, but it doesn’t just blow away.”
—Ralph Ellison, Juneteenth


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Megan Lakatos