We make holidays as a way to remember. We also create holidays as joyous celebrations. It’s for both of these reasons that we need to enshrine a new national holiday on June 19th, the day that slavery ended and America truly became the land of the free. Black America calls this day Juneteenth. But to truly celebrate the freedom it represents, all Americans must honor the memories of the struggle it took for the country to finally recognize that everyone is indeed created equal.
Memories like those from Laura Smalley, who estimates that she was about 10 years old when she was freed. In 1941, the Library of Congress recorded her memories in Hempstead, Texas. Smalley recalled her former master returning from the war a defeated man. Yet he still refused to completely surrender. Because even though the Confederate Army had been beaten, he didn’t tell the slaves on his plantation that they were now free to leave. Instead, he planned to work them for one last harvest.
“They worked there, I think now they say they worked them, six months after that. Six months. And turn them loose on the 19th of June. That’s why, you know, we celebrate that day. Colored folks — celebrates that day,” Mrs. Smalley explained in her soft and aged voice.
“They gave ‘em a big dinner, on the 19th,” she continued. “They said, ‘Give ‘em a big dinner.’ Now we didn’t know. I don’t know about folks on the other side, fortunate to know about their freedom. We didn’t know. We just thought, ‘They just feeding us,’ ya know. They had a long table. And just had a little everything you want to eat and drink. That was on the 19th. Everything you’d want to eat and drink. But see, I didn’t know what that was for.”
The very next year, freedmen and freedwomen of Texas gathered again on June 19th to celebrate the one-year anniversary of their emancipation from slavery. In 1872, a group of the newly freed pooled $800 together to purchase 10 acres of land in Houston (which is now known as Emancipation Park). Ever since, generation after generation of Black people have gathered on that exact same spot to mark Juneteenth — the day when Black America was finally free of bondage. More than a century later, in 1980, Texas lawmakers officially made Juneteenth a state holiday. Today, 46 other states and the District of Columbia have done the same. (The only holdouts are Hawaii and the two Dakotas.)
On a federal level, there are currently four bills in Congress to make Juneteenth a national holiday — three House resolutions and a Senate one submitted by Senator Roger Wicker, a Republican from Mississippi. Everyone knows this is a time of vitriol in Congress, but the Juneteenth Senate Resolution is a rare bill with healthy support on both sides of the aisle. It has 47 co-sponsors — including Texas Senators Ted Cruz and John Cornyn as well as Rand Paul, Chuck Grassley and Marco Rubio — and now awaits passage in the House to become federal law.
The thing is, despite all of this goodwill, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi has yet to move it through her chamber, and more tellingly, it’s never been sent to the Library of Congress to be recorded. This matters because, per government records, “Bills are generally sent to the Library of Congress from the Government Publishing Office a day or two after they are introduced on the floor of the House or Senate. Delays can occur when there are a large number of bills to prepare or when a very large bill has to be printed.”
The full text of S. Res. 547, however, is only three pages long.
It’s yet another purposeful blind eye to the sins of America’s past — again, sins that Juneteenth would properly memorialize. For instance, Harriet Smith was roughly 13 when both the Civil War and slavery ended, a time she calls “the big breakup.” Still, even after she was freed, she remained on the same land whose owners once called her family slaves. It was there that her husband was killed by a white man she once breastfed — not as a slave either, she’d done it as a free woman.
We need Juneteenth to keep these memories alive and to examine our nation in the same way we relive the historic moments of the Founding Fathers on the Fourth of July. We need a day of remembrance for what Black people have endured to become Americans — and what we continue to endure. And Americans of all races need a day to joyously celebrate what we’ve overcome together, as well as a day to think hard about how much further there is to go.
After all, what could be more American than a holiday dedicated not just to the promise of freedom but to the achievement of it?