I Never Knew
In 2001, President Joe Biden signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act, establishing a holiday that commemorates the end of slavery in the US. But to be honest, and also a bit embarrassed, I had never heard of Juneteenth. I never knew.
Looking back on my childhood, I have fond memories of celebrating the 4th of July. Our family tradition was going into downtown Houston to join our church community in the parking lot for a big annual festival. I remember the smell of fresh hot dogs sizzling on the grill and the sounds of fellow children buzzing past socializing adults. After playing games, eating apple pie, and guzzling water at the hydration station in the 100-degree humid heat, we settled into our lawn chairs to watch the magnificent display of a big Texas sky filled with fireworks. But beyond the show, I was taught that freedom comes at a cost. This particular freedom came from the British Crown at the cost of human life in the years leading up to the adoption of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776.
Yet as a child, I never knew of another freedom festival that began in Galveston, Texas, marked annually just days before July 4th celebrations. Juneteenth (a word derived from combining "June" and "nineteenth") commemorates the day in 1865 when enslaved people in Texas had officially been told that President Abraham Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation two and a half years earlier. Confederates had remained in rebellion, with some enslavers neglecting to tell those they enslaved. On June 19, 1865, Major General Gordon Granger and 1800 volunteer Union soldiers came to deliver this good news message to over 250,000 enslaved women, children, and men:
"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 personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere."
I can only imagine what these words must have meant to those enslaved their whole lives. To those that only knew chains and pain, oppression and lynchings, without a taste of freedom, this day was a day to celebrate. They finally heard that their injustices were being made right. They finally saw black people in authority, as many Union army members who came ashore were black soldiers. They finally knew freedom.
Pierce Harper, a man who was enslaved in northeast Texas, recounts the celebrations on June 19, 1865, in "Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1938" with these words: "When peace comes [the army] read the 'emancipation law to the culled people and they stayed up half the night… singing and shouting…they spent that night singin' and shoutin'. They weren't slaves no more." What a beautiful picture of the celebration we join today, celebrating the day marked by ending slavery and freedom for all people. I never knew, but now I do.
This celebration reminds me of the passionate words the Apostle Paul wrote to the church in Galatia, asking them to remember the freedom they had received from Jesus apart from the law: "It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery" (Galatians 5:2). He also told them two chapters earlier: "There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Galatians 3:28). Juneteenth also echoes the words of Isaiah, fulfilled in Jesus: The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me because the Lord has anointed me, to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn" (Isaiah 61:1-2). Thank you, Jesus, for freeing us from sin, death, and the Devil. Thank you, Jesus, for freeing us from our sins and giving us saving faith. Before Christ rescued me, I never knew, but now I do. Over the past year and a half, I have been on a learning journey. It has been enlightening, which Dr. Daniel Hill describes in his book White Awake as the true question of transformation, "Jesus, will you help me to see?" (p. 21) Jesus has helped me see by listening to stories of friends who are different than I am, see my own privilege, see the need to speak up for racial reconciliation, and see with gratitude the opportunities I have to serve on mission with Jesus and others in such a diverse college community. Jesus has helped me see. I never knew, but now I do.
At Concordia University Texas, our mission is to empower students from all backgrounds to lead lives of critical thought, compassionate action, and courageous leadership. Our hope today is that you join us in celebrating Juneteenth and the ending of slavery in America in 1865. We also hope you will continue to learn more about yourself and others who have had their own experiences with Juneteenth.
After I asked them about their awareness of this holiday, one of my colleagues recently told me, "As a child, and still today, I celebrated Juneteenth even more than the 4th of July." My childhood was a little different, but now I get to celebrate both days with a newfound recognition of the importance of these holidays. I never knew, but now I do.
I was recently turned onto a documentary - Juneteenth: Faith and Freedom - a documentary @ourdailybread - by one of my colleagues, which helps underscore the importance of this day. We invite you to take an hour to watch, considering the following questions:
Feel free to stop the video and reflect at the marked-out times.
- What is your emotional response as you watch the images of slavery? (7:31)
- What hope do you have amid this painful narrative of injustice? (17:37)
- How do you think an enslaved person would have felt seeing a black soldier with authority? (26:02)
- The number of lynchings in Texas the year after June 19, 1965, was at least 800. What stood out to you most about the conversation about the Christian faith of those set free during the continued violence and oppression for so many? (46:02)
- Historical trauma and racism are real. How have you experienced them or listened to the stories of others who have? (1:05:51)
- What new perspective or insight might you have gained from watching this documentation on Juneteenth? (1:14:32)
Heavenly Father, touch our hearts so that we love one another. May we work for justice and peace in places of brokenness. Bless our celebrations as we continue to take action in love for freedom, equity, and justice for all. Thank you, Jesus, for your grace and redemption offered to all people. In Jesus' name. Amen.Campus Ministry