The Myths of Juneteenth
By Tony Candela
Many of us celebrated our newest official federal holiday on June 20, a day after the actual Juneteenth. Others like New Jersey celebrated it on the previous Friday, the 17th. All did not go smoothly. In northern New Jersey there was a sick-out by train engineers employed by a large commuter rail line (NJ Transit) because they were not given the day off, probably the result of their having failed to reach a collective bargaining agreement. Thousands of revelers had to get home on the last trains out of NY Penn Station at 8:00 pm as so many trains were cancelled. It was elbow to elbow all the way. New York celebrated the holiday on the 19th and again on the 20th and all seemed to go smoothly.
Texas is the source-State of Juneteenth. On that date in 1865, the U.S. army (formerly the Union army) entered Galveston and officially notified its occupants that enslavement was outlawed. The news is reported to have come late to Galveston, no doubt because of poor communications systems back then. This, of course, is bunk.
On NPR the other day, I heard a report that debunks myths about Juneteenth. First, everyone knew that Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation on September 22, 1862. There was word of mouth to spread the news, especially among enslaved people, and, let’s not forget, the telegraph system. They simply couldn’t get free because there was no army to enforce the order, meaning that slave-owners clung tightly until the bitter end to the cheap labor that formed the backbone of their economic system. Other myths pertain to who wrote the Juneteenth order and how it was delivered. Contrary to myth, a Major Emery wrote the order, not the General (Granger) and there were no grand speeches, only notices posted in places frequented by black people and slave-masters and read aloud by whomever could do so. A telling part of the order were words to the effect that blacks should keep working and not be idle, an attempt to placate the white planters who were about to lose their workforce. Most enslaved people, it is said, heard the part about being free and took off.
All this is to say that here we go again with the State of Texas. The Lone Star State, once an independent republic, would most likely if it were feasible and practical which it is not, like to go its own way again. After all, it is such a conglomerate of outliers, but before I go off on Texas, let me say there are a lot of places with similar patterns, some conservative and some liberal. Texas is the unfortunate home of the recent disaster in Uvalde where so many young children and two teachers were gunned down by an 18-year-old with an AR 15. This repeats itself in many places, so other than the mentality that enables Texas’ open carry law, it’s hard to pin this solely on Texas. For years Texas ranked near-bottom in healthcare provision for the poor and elementary educational achievement, but I haven’t kept up on how things are going lately. I do recall from my days with the American Foundation for the Blind in the early 2000s fighting to keep the Texas vocational rehabilitation agency for the blind a separate agency. We failed. Now it is embedded in a larger agency that includes labor and rehabilitation and it’s hard to tell how blind people are faring. The variables get blurred after a while, but when studies were done years ago, separate blind agencies did better than generic ones. And, finally, there is still Ted Cruz!
I worry about the Juneteenth holiday. I worry that the federal government co-opted a Texas event and made it national as a partial offset to the George Floyd killing and in deference to the Black Lives Matter movement which of course I agree with. I don’t want it to be watered down by a holiday which might be more symbolic than substantive. Let’s not be misled into thinking we have solved anything by the salve of a holiday; there is still most of the work to be done regarding race-relations in this country. If it weren’t for the installation of Juneteenth which can never be undone without a huge amount of unrest and feelings of betrayal, I for one would be asking why did we not create an Emancipation Proclamation Day holiday instead? If this sounds in any way like a bad idea, then ask yourself why is Juneteenth such a good idea? We should not trivialize that black folks seem to love the holiday, but the root cause of what happened on June 19, 1865 also reminds us of the worst of us, a continuation of slavery to the last minute and a forced exit prompted by an army entering Galveston. Juneteenth is here to stay and that is fine, but let’s not get complacent; there is still much to be done.
Anthony R. Candela, Author
Saying aloud what should not remain silent.
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Tony Candela has worked as a Rehabilitation Counselor, supervisor, manager consultant and administrator for more than 40 years in the field of blindness and visual impairment. His work has included promoting literacy and employment of blind persons and a special interest in enhancing the career preparation of blind persons who wish to work in the computer science field. He is a “retired” athlete, loves movies, sports, reading, writing, and music, including dabbling in guitar. Read more at