[June 19, 2020] June 19th is the oldest nationally recognized commemoration date of the ending of slavery in the United States. The date comes after the U.S. Civil War, fought to end slavery, and where an estimated 620,000 people died. Not only were these losses higher than all other American wars, but the impact of the war also continues to echo throughout our culture. And, now for a few comments on Juneteenth, which came about at the end of the Civil War.
The ending of slavery in the United States should be one of the most celebrated times in our history. But it is not. Yet, if we are to look back upon the history of the United States, we see the tremendous efforts put into our Nation’s birth and progress since its founding in 1776. To extract any single impactful event, the U.S. Civil War is undeniably the most important of the nineteenth century. The war freed millions of slaves in our country.
World War II freed tens of millions from terrible dictators bent on destroying sovereign nations. Historians have argued for decades which of the two have had the most impact on America. I won’t debate it but point out that both are relevant and culturally shaping events of the highest order.
Given the Civil War’s end-state, I do humbly suggest that we purposefully elevate the reasons for the war with a special day. Without more emphasis on such a special day and therefore setting aside a time to remember and celebrate, we will not be able to fully teach those hard-won lessons from the war.
Also, many have argued that the date of June 19th is not the proper date. One of the three other dates should be considered. September 22nd, which is the date of U.S. President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation in1862 (nearly three years before June 19, 1865, when Texas formally freed their slaves).1,2 Or, May 9th, when in 1865 the Confederacy surrendered officially, ending the bloodiest war the U.S. ever fought.3 Or, December 18th, when in 1865, the 13th Amendment to the Constitution formally abolished slavery.
Today, every child in the U.S. learns about the Civil War, and they know the significance of keeping the Union together and freeing the slaves. Texas only ended slavery after being occupied by Union troops on June 19th, a full six weeks later, after the formal surrender.
Freeing slaves is humankind’s seminal achievement in the last 200 years. Why we don’t memorialize such a worthy effort is unclear. We all deserve better. Many believe the freeing of slaves in America is no longer noteworthy because of the problems we experience today. I don’t see it this way. We may not see these events of the Civil War to be of significance, but we do so only at our peril.
- Some will legitimately suggest January 1st of 1863 when the proclamation took effect and should be the best date we might consider.
- “And by virtue of the power, and for the purpose aforesaid, I do order and declare that all persons held as slaves within said designated States, and parts of States, are, and henceforward shall be free; and that the Executive government of the United States, including the military and naval authorities thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of said persons.” – U.S. President Abraham Lincoln in the Emancipation Proclamation, September 22, 1862
- This date remains a day of infamy for those living in those states which legally allowed slavery.