Our nation is about to celebrate its third commemoration of Juneteenth as a federal holiday, marking the jubilant day in June 1865 when many enslaved people in Texas finally learned they were free from federal troops arriving in Galveston after the end of the Civil War. The news came more than two and a half years after President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, freeing all slaves in the Confederate states. While Juneteenth is still a very new federal holiday, many Black families have celebrated this day for generations, a tradition that began almost immediately in Texas following the first “Jubilee Day.” We honor this date because, in my beloved friend and role model Fannie Lou Hamer’s eternal words, nobody’s free until everybody’s free.
Mrs. Opal Lee, the 96-year-old “Grandmother of Juneteenth” who is one of the activists who worked tirelessly to push for Juneteenth’s recognition as a national holiday, remembers her own early childhood in Marshall, Texas, where Juneteenth was celebrated at the local fairgrounds with games, music, and food, and always felt like a second Christmas. But she also remembers Juneteenth in 1939, soon after her family had moved into a new white neighborhood in Fort Worth, Texas. That night a white mob set fire to their new home, destroying the furniture and possessions her parents had just so proudly unpacked. Family friends took them in as they were forced to spend the next several years rebuilding their lives. Both memories are key pieces of the full story of American history.
Mrs. Lee, who eventually earned a master’s degree in education and spent more than twenty years as an educator and counselor in Fort Worth public schools, remains committed to making sure students learn the full truth about our nation’s history of injustice and violence so “we can heal from it and not let it happen again.” As she says, “I’m adamant about schools actually having the truth told.” Her own children’s book Juneteenth: A Children’s Story is just the kind of history and truth that some schools and libraries in her home state and elsewhere are desperately trying to ban and hide right now. Some current Members of Congress voted against making Juneteenth a federal holiday. But truth hidden will always be brought to light.
For more than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation slavery continued as usual in Texas, but on June 19, 1865, U.S. Major General Gordon Granger issued General Order No. 3 finally informing all people in Texas that all enslaved people were free. For decades after that, many Americans did not know what Juneteenth symbolized. Now it is a federally recognized annual holiday that teaches all Americans about that inescapable moment in our history and officially reminds us of the ongoing struggle to make the promise of liberty and justice for all real. As Mrs. Lee also says, “We don’t want people to think that Juneteenth is a stopping point, because it isn’t. It’s a beginning.”
On June 13 Mrs. Lee was one of the honored guests at the White House’s Juneteenth Concert, and as Vice President Kamala Harris opened the event, she invited her to come to the stage. Mrs. Lee greeted all the “young people”—telling the whole audience they were included if they were not yet 96—and said: “Please, could I just say this to you, young folk: Make yourself a committee of one to change somebody’s mind. If people can be taught to hate, they can be taught to love. And it’s up to you to do it. We are the most powerful country . . . and we must get together and get rid of the disparities, the joblessness and homelessness, and health care that some people couldn’t get and others can, and climate change that we are responsible for. If we don’t do something about it, we’re all going to hell in a handbasket.” We honor this spirit on Juneteenth as we remember again that nobody’s free until everybody’s free.