On June 19, 1865, two and a half years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, Union troops arrived in Galveston, Texas to ensure all enslaved people had been freed following the end of the Civil War. Six months later, slavery in America was officially abolished with the adoption of the 13th Amendment. The following year, organizers in Texas put together a celebration to commemorate June Nineteenth, which we know today as Juneteenth. On June 17, 2021, President Joe Biden signed into law a resolution establishing Juneteenth as a national holiday.
Juneteenth joins a set of dates that denotes America’s commitment to our North Star: the belief all people are created equal and should have the same opportunities as every other citizen to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Like other federal holidays, Juneteenth will commemorate a significant event in American history. While many people will be tempted to see this as merely the end of slavery, I believe it should also evoke a desire for self-reflection in order to find some lesson in which one can apply to their life.
As we find ourselves debating what should be taught in social study courses about American history, I tend to observe the political left being overly concerned about facts of history while the political right tends to be more interested in the lessons of history. Where I believe people get it right is when facts and lessons are in alignment. However, overemphasizing facts about history leads to a misalignment with the lesson. But what is the lesson we are seeking to learn about American history, especially our history around slavery?
In the days leading up to July 4, 1776, Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence in which he famously stated, “[w]e hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” With these words, the Founding Fathers led a revolution for freedom and the right of the people to be self-governed. Additionally, it was implied in the Declaration of Independence that if the people traded a monarchy for a republic, then the people will be able to chart the course of the nation upon their liberation from the British Empire. Hearing the bell of liberty, both free and enslaved men took up arms against the British and won their independence. True to their word, the Founding Fathers gave the American people a nation to be governed by the people, whereby political leaders are democratically elected. When Abraham Lincoln said “government of the people, by the people, for the people” during his Gettysburg address, it represented the sentiments of what the Founding Fathers had envisioned for the country.
However, this was not the case for all Americans. The country was founded on the proposition that all men are created equal, and that they were endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, but still America allowed slavery to exist. Slavery created an unreconcilable condition between our founding beliefs and social practices.
When the American government ignored the call for equality, the American people answered it. What started as an abolitionist movement ultimately gave rise to a new political party—the Republican Party—to take on the political establishment of the day and see to the end of slavery in America. On November 6, 1860, Abraham Lincoln was elected president of the United States, and he was the first Republican to be elected president. (We all know the history, so there is no need for me to repeat it.)
What is important to highlight, however, is that Lincoln’s commitment to see the end of slavery and reunification of the country would ultimately cost him his life. Moreover, the Civil War would be America’s bloodiest conflict. Over 600,000 Union and Confederate soldiers lost their lives. This highlights the cost of acting to end slavery, but not the cost of inaction. That cost, unfortunately, cannot be known. What is the cost of separating a child from their parent to be sold as a slave? What is the cost of denying a person a proper education? What is the cost of denying an individual a future whereby they are free to chart their own path?
Indeed, the known cost of action and unknown cost of inaction against slavery are significant. Thinking about this particular history is truly sobering. And as I meditate on it to derive a lesson one can learn from it, the Book of Job comes to mind. Job 23:10 (NIV) says, “when He has tested me, I will come forth as gold.” As if to say, the hardships of life can strengthen us both mentally and emotionally. This is an encouraging thought one can take from the history that gave us Juneteenth. It teaches us that even in darkest of times, one can still find the good in life. Despite all that happened, something extraordinary took place in America between 1861 and 1865. In our commitment to the truth that all men are created equal, the United States became the only country (insofar as I am aware) to start a civil war with itself to free its own slaves. This would have been unheard of prior to 19th century America, especially over the belief that all men are created equal. And with this, I finally arrive to a lesson one can take from Juneteenth.
To me, Juneteenth encapsulates the aforementioned information and the emotion for which it evokes. It represents a journey that starts with despair and hope and ends with courage. The courage to never turn away from our North Star. The courage to face despair daily and choose to live. The courage to own up to a mistake despite the social cost. The courage to be true to your word. And when one finds the courage to do these things, they come forth from their internal struggle refined and brilliant like gold. Upon self-reflection of our history, we are humbled by the past and simultaneously made noble because of it.
To me, this is the lesson from the American history that gave us Juneteenth.
Joshua Peters is a philosopher and social critic from Raleigh, NC. His academic background is in western philosophy, STEM, and financial analysis. Joshua studied at North Carolina State University (BS) and UNC Charlotte (MS). He is a graduate of the E.A. Morris Fellowship for Emerging Leaders.