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The History Of Juneteenth, And Why It Is Relevant Today


Rewind the clock about 155 years, and you would find yourself in 1865. And if you were an enslaved man, woman or child in Texas, it was the day that the news of liberation reached your state, more than two years after President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. Billy McCray was around 13 years old when Union troops came to Jasper, Texas.


BILLY MCCRAY: All riding horses, big guns hanging on them and...


What McCray says there is he remembers being impressed by the horses and the cannons. This interview is from 1940. The quality is a little hard to hear, and it includes an offensive word.


MCCRAY: He said, well, all of you n*****s is all free now.

KELLY: Billy McCray remembering the moment where the man who owned him told him he was free.

CHANG: Now in 2020, this day is called Juneteenth, and it's become a day to commemorate the end of chattel slavery in America.

CHELSEA GOMEZ: Juneteenth is why we speak out. Juneteenth is why we fight and will never stop fighting. Justice cannot be delayed any longer. None of us is free until we are all free. Happy Juneteenth.

CHANG: That is Chelsea Gomez (ph) of Tampa, Fla. She sent us a voice memo today on what Juneteenth means to her.

KELLY: Here in Washington, Morgan Sills (ph) and her friends commemorated Juneteenth by marching toward the Lincoln Memorial.


UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: We must help one another and protect one another.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: We have nothing to lose but our chains.

KELLY: Sills is thinking about Juneteenth in the context of these weeks of civil rights protests that have taken place across the nation demanding justice for black Americans killed by police.

MORGAN SILLS: It's always been independence for a group of people who did not have it when the rest of their country was enjoying freedom. Right now more than ever, it's a signal that we are still in this fight.

CHANG: The people who watched the sun rise on June 19, 1865, saw their last sunsets a long time ago. But the events of that day - the ones we commemorate on Juneteenth - are alive in the present, in a system infected with racism and in the calls for a better future. We wanted to learn more about Juneteenth, and so we asked CeLillianne Green to join us. She is a poet and a lawyer and author of the book "A Bridge: The Poetic Primer On African And African American Experiences." Welcome.

CELILLIANNE GREEN: Thank you for having me.

CHANG: So can you just take us back to June 19, 1865? We've already heard a little of what happened, but fill in some more for us. What happened on that day?

GREEN: Well, I like to think that these people who were unexpected to know that that day would come when they would be told that they were free - they had no indication that there had been an Emancipation Proclamation that became effective on January the 1 of 1865.

CHANG: Right. Yes. Yes. Yes.

GREEN: But these people were legally illiterate. And so the general who had to come there to tell them this information had to read them a document called the General Order No. 3 in which he tells them that there has been a proclamation by the executive of the United States - who, at that point, was Abraham Lincoln, who had been assassinated - to let them know that all slaves are free. And I think that that word free is the word that resonated so much in the spirit of who they were as African people who had only known being enslaved.

But the vibrational frequency of the word free seeped into their spirit in a way that we can't even imagine today that brought a feeling of joy, of jubilation, the idea that they could walk and be human beings as God had intended them to be and consistent with the Declaration of Independence, which states that we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men - all people are created equal, endowed by their creator with unalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. And I think in that moment, they felt all of that without even knowing what the Declaration of Independence necessarily said.

CHANG: Yeah.

GREEN: But it was the power of the word freedom that they took with them for the next year, and they created a holiday that they began to celebrate their freedom, their emancipation. On the anniversary of June 19, 1865, they celebrated in 1866. And we can celebrate freedom today because of what they did on that date.

CHANG: I love the way you told that. And these individuals who got word that they were finally free on that day, were they really the last enslaved people to be set free from chattel slavery in America?

GREEN: Well, not exactly because a lot of people have confusion about what the Emancipation Proclamation actually did. It only freed the people who were enslaved in the Confederate States. It did not free people who were in the border states, who were in the Northern states. And the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery except upon conviction of a crime, was - excuse me - while it was passed in January of 1865, was not ratified until December of 1865. And there were certainly a whole host of activities that this country engaged in as it related to Black people - including the Jim Crow laws, convict leasing - that were forms of slavery by another name as has been written by the author who wrote the book with that title.

CHANG: So given that, why this date, this event? Why choose this day, June 19, to take stock of all of this history?

GREEN: I think we're in a moment in time where we're at a crossroads. And the country has had opportunities before, but 2020, I think, is symbolic of the 20/20 vision, the clarity that the country can have to begin to live into the documents that created it...

CHANG: Right.

GREEN: ...The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution. In fact, the Constitution says that we the people - and what you're seeing now is we the people are in the streets.

CHANG: Well, we will have to end it there. CeLillianne Green, poet and lawyer, thank you so much for joining us.

GREEN: Thank you so much for having me.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: This story incorrectly says the Emancipation Proclamation took effect on January 1, 1865. It went into effect on January 1, 1863. The enslaved people in Texas were not informed until June 19, 1865.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Corrected: June 19, 2020 at 9:00 PM PDT
This story incorrectly says the Emancipation Proclamation took effect on Jan. 1, 1865. It went into effect on Jan. 1, 1863, but the enslaved people in Texas were not informed until June 19, 1865.