By The Rev. Canon Bruce A. Jackson – Canon for Black Ministry
In 2021, President Joe Biden signed into law a proclamation making June 19 a federal holiday that has become known as “Juneteenth.” This holiday commemorates June 19, 1865, when U.S. Gen. Gordon Granger, following the defeat of the Confederacy in the Civil War, arrived in Galveston, Texas, and announced that all people being held captive in slavery in Texas were to be set free immediately.
Granger’s proclamation was some two and a half years after President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, issued on September 22, 1862, declared an end to the centuries-old American barbarism. Even more noteworthy, it took place nearly two months after Robert E. Lee surrendered the Confederacy to the United States before Gen. Ulysses Grant at Appomattox, Virginia, and human slavery was declared over in America.
Although Texas received the formal decree ending human slavery, the white slaveholders in Texas ignored the order and did not inform the enslaved black folks of their freedom. So, southern life in Texas, based on race-based slavery, continued uninterrupted with all antebellum conventions. The 250,00 human beings of color in Texas were kept still toiling beneath the whips of their owners, none the wiser of the news of their formal liberty, until Gen. Granger put a long overdue end to this illegal, immoral, dastardly and inhuman “institution” in Texas. The last vestige of American slavery thus came to its end on June 19, 1865.
Ever since African-Americans have annually celebrated June 19th as a historic occasion. It became celebrated, variously, as “Black Independence Day,” “Emancipation Day,” or more popularly “Juneteenth.” Former slaves gathered in their communities and celebrated with expressions of the unique culture they developed during centuries of bondage. These included prayer gatherings, music, dance, singing of spirituals, parades, historical readings, and the sharing of food. These still go on today.
All Christians, whether or not descendants of slaves, should identify with, and celebrate Juneteenth. All Christians in America should do so in light of the biblical encouragement to share in the joys of others (Romans 12:15). In fact, the entire message of the bible points to the need for liberation from the ubiquitous bondage of sin.
The announcement of the formal end of the enslavement of people of color in America should resonate with all believers who understand our own need for spiritual liberation. It should resonate with anybody who claims to be a follower of Jesus. Jesus identifies himself as the one appointed “to proclaim liberty to the captives…to set at liberty those who are oppressed.” (Luke 4:18).
Although the historical American slave trade is gone, as with any national sin, there remains a deep-seated social wounding that will take generations to truly address. If we genuinely wish to heal from the residue of our national sin, we must, like in the Book of Nehemiah, own up to it.
Juneteenth symbolizes the day an unrighteous institution ended, and when Almighty God delivered His people of color from its remnants. But it should also be a day when white Christians join with their brothers and sisters of color in celebration of its significance.
We can use this occasion to celebrate the many Christians who rose above apathy, fought against, and spoke out against, the great injustice of human slavery, and who continue to stand for right in the face of our nation’s ongoing struggle for racial equality and harmony. We can connect this celebratory occasion to talk about a Savior who came to set all captives free, uplift the oppressed, and by whose grace we all stand on equal footing before the cross.
May we live out the beautiful and haunting final verse of that great Negro Spiritual – Lift Every Voice & Sing – which resonates with similar gratitude to God that Israel expressed in Exodus 15:
“God of our weary years,
God of our silent tears,
Thou who has brought us thus far on the way;
Thou who has by Thy might lead us into the light,
Keep us forever in the path we pray…”
Your brother in Christ,
The Rev. Canon Bruce A. Jackson
For more resources and information on Juneteeth, visit the History of Juneteenth from Beloved Community Initiative