With the release of films such as 12 Years a Slave and The Birth of a Nation and the re-make of the “Roots” mini-series in 2016, we have seen our fair share of the history of black slavery. However, the past few years may have marked the beginning of a burgeoning interest of millennials and younger in exploring slavery, the eventual emancipation of slaves and beyond.
While the official date of the Emancipation Proclamation freeing slaves was enacted on Jan. 1, 1863, it would take two years for slaves in Galveston, Texas to learn of their freedom on June 19, 1865 when Union General Gordon Granger arrived in the city and told them they were free. In years since, June 19 began to be celebrated across the country as Juneteenth and in 1980, the Texan legislature established Juneteenth as a state holiday. Still, the celebration of Juneteenth, which has been inconsistent throughout the course of history, has yet to achieve the recognition and popularity of other official American holidays.
Rev. Ronald V. Meyers Sr., chairman of the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation, has been working since 1994 when he helped organize the foundation that is working to have Juneteenth recognized as a national American holiday. “Forty-five states recognize Juneteenth as a state holiday or a special day of recognition or observance. We’re still missing North Dakota, South Dakota, New Hampshire, Montana, and Hawaii,” says Meyers.
Myers learned about Juneteenth through celebrations in his hometown of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. “We had one of the largest celebrations around and it was then that I began to understand the history of our freedom in America, and I took that with me wherever I went.”
By 1994, Myers, who was living in Louisiana then, met with Juneteenth enthusiasts from across the country at Christian Unity Baptist Church in New Orleans. He was selected to be the chairman of National Juneteenth Observance Foundation at the meeting. “We wanted to work together for greater recognition of Juneteenth to make it like Flag Day and have a day set aside for the celebration.”
While Myers has been successful in securing senate resolutions in 2014 and 2015, designating June 19 as Juneteenth, he had hoped to gain former President Barack Obama’s support of Juneteenth by his last year in office.
“When President Obama was a state senator in Illinois, he supported legislation to officially recognize Juneteenth in 2003. And when he was a U.S. senator, he sponsored legislation to recognize Juneteenth in the U.S. Senate in 2006. But he hasn’t issued a proclamation to make Juneteenth Independence Day a National Day of Observance as president or held a Juneteenth celebration at the White House. I don’t know why since the White House was built by slaves.”
While Obama did not issue a proclamation, he did issue a statement on June 19, 2015 supporting the observance of Juneteenth which was posted on the White House website. He also referenced the shooting at Emanuel A.M.E., which occurred a year ago on June 17. To read the statement, click here.
The home of author and illustrator Floyd Cooper’s great-grandparents who were slaves. (Photo Courtesy of Floyd Cooper)
Similarly to Meyers, Floyd Cooper, children’s book author and illustrator, remembers celebrating Juneteenth in Haskell, Oklahoma where he grew up. “I’m from a very large extended family, and all of my cousins, aunts, uncles and everyone would get together and have big cookouts for Juneteenth.”
He also remembers hearing about his family’s history from his great-grandparents who were freed slaves and lived in a home built from stone in Oklahoma. They migrated to Oklahoma after packing up in a covered wagon and leaving Texas. Before that, they moved from Georgia where they worked as slaves on a plantation owned by an Irish man. “They said he never whipped them which was important for them,” Cooper says.
His great-grandparents also kept a photograph of one of their slave ancestors from Georgia in their home. “I remember being a child looking up at that photograph. It was in one of those oval frames.”
While he hasn’t been able to link his great-grandparents directly to the slaves who heard about the Emancipation Proclamation on June 19 in Galveston, Texas, he did draw from his own family’s history to write and illustrate Juneteenth for Mazie, a children’s picture book of the history of Juneteenth which was published in 2015 .
In the book, Mazie’s father teaches young Mazie about the struggles and the triumphs of her family’s past as they prepare to celebrate Juneteenth. “Juneteenth is a great American holiday,” Cooper says.
However, some are not in favor of celebrating nor recognizing Juneteenth. Ronda Racha Penrice, author of African American History For Dummies, is one of those detractors.
“[Juneteenth] reinforces Black people as passive and as people waiting for others to free them when black people in the South would tell Union soldiers when they showed up that they were free and come and set up camp with Union soldiers,” Penrice says. “Many of them wrote letters to the White House for instructions as to what to do. This influenced the drafting of the Emancipation Proclamation.”
Penrice also doesn’t believe that June 19 is a particularly special day as slaves throughout the South became aware of their freedom on different days.
“Emancipation Day celebrations took place May 8 for some and August 8 for others.” Penrice also pointed out in her book that many of the celebrations stopped after 1920 when black people moved to larger cities and wanted to disassociate from their rural pasts.
However, while Meyers agrees that slaves learned about their freedom on various days, he still believes that freedom from slavery should be celebrated.
“My challenge to African Americans is ‘What day do you celebrate our freedom?'” he says. “On the 4th of July when Americans of African descent were still caught up in the tyranny of slavery?”
Do you and the people you know observe Juneteenth? Why or why not? Sound off below.
Lowest Rates Since 1946
Teen birth rates by age, race, and Hispanic origin were the lowest on record in 2010 and the lowest they’ve been since 1946, the National Center for Health Statistics said in a new report. The number of babies born to teenagers declined 9 percent from 2009 to 2010 (34.3 births per 1,000 women aged 15–19) and 44 percent from 1991 through 2010. Black and White teenagers saw identical declines of 9 percent, while American Indians, Alaska Natives, Hispanics, Asians, and Pacific Islanders saw a 12-13 percent decline.
“Rates tended to be highest in the South and Southwest and lowest in the Northeast and Upper Midwest, a pattern that has persisted for many years,” the report said. “Some of the variation across states reflects variation in population composition within states by race and Hispanic origin.”
Contraception and Sex Education Work
Dr. John Santelli, a professor of clinical population and family health at Columbia University told The New York Times Well blog that increased contraception usage has made the biggest difference. “In the ’90s, it was the big increase in condom use; most recently it looks like it’s an increase in the use of oral contraceptives, the patch and perhaps even the IUD.”
“There was a major change in public messaging about teenage sexual activity and condom use,” Rebecca A. Maynard, a professor of education and social policy at the University of Pennsylvania told The Times. “The former was fueled by the abstinence education advocates and the latter by public health concerns about the high rate of sexually transmitted disease among teens.”
Teen STD Rates Still at ‘Historic’ High
Valerie Huber, executive director of the National Abstinence Education Association, told Baptist Press the new numbers reflect a variety of factors including “family structure, parental expectations, socio-economics and type of sex education.” She also said sexually transmitted disease rates remain “at historic highs.”
“Even though the STD rate among teenagers is at an all-time high, the NAEA found a 1:24 disparity in federal funding of abstinence education compared to contraceptive-centered programs. From 2007 to 2012, the funding gap between the two is more than $4.2 billion — $675.9 million to $4.9 billion. The most recent budget proposal by President Obama recommends only 4 percent of sex education dollars be spent on abstinence-based programs,” Baptist Press reported.
American Teens Have Twice as Many Babies
Additionally, U.S. teens still have twice as many babies as 20 other industrialized nations, The Washington Post WonkBlog reported. The reasons cited are more economic inequality in the United States, lower contraceptive usage among American teens, and higher abortion rates abroad.
Teen pregnancy costs an estimated $10.9 billion annually and only 50 percent of teen moms will earn a high school diploma by age 22, CBS News’ HealthPop reported.
“We are in a woeful shape,” television’s Dr. Drew Pinsky told CBS News’ HealthPop. “The strange thing about the entirety of the sexual revolution is that no one even thought this sexual revolution thing hoisted by adults was raining down on teenagers and young adults. It’s had dire, dire consequences.”
What do you think?
Should sex education for teens be comprehensive or abstinence only?
Yesterday, UrbanFaith columnist Andrew Wilkes expressed his opinion about President Obama’s decision last week not to require religious employers to pay for contraception as part of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Today, we add the voices of Christian thinkers Cheryl J. Sanders, Charles C. Camosy, and Lisa Sharon Harper to the discussion.
Sanders: ‘The Public Policy Priority Is Justice’
Dr. Cheryl J. Sanders
“The first rule that had to be retracted and reversed was an unfortunate miscalculation on the president’s part. I give him credit for tweaking the agreement. What I lament is something that I don’t just blame him for, but which occurs from time to time, particularly in the federal government, where there’s a misunderstanding, a misreading, of religion and people’s religious sensibilities. Some things can be legislated, but there are some beliefs and practices that people have that are grounded in faith rather than a particular notion of rights.
My ethical perspective is that the priority in public policy should be given to justice. The purpose of justice is to ensure the well being of people and to impose those restraints and requirements that give people equal access to justice and to fair treatment, because they’re not exactly the same. Sometimes those justice matters are subjective, but the outcome of justice should be the best quality of life that any individual person or group can have.
Some people make very questionable decisions about their sexuality, about child bearing, but they have a right to their own bodies and their own relationships, so it’s good for government to stay out of that. When it comes to federal funding of religious institutions, there are goods and services that go to people consistent with this notion of quality of life that are rightly funded by the government. However, the government has to be respectful of the particular moral teachings of a particular religious community that would not necessarily square with the morality of the general public.
I don’t say that’s an easy calculation to make. The government is much more comfortable funding big corporate entities like Catholic Charities and Lutheran Social Services, even the Salvation Army, because they’re organized in a way that matches with the dominant culture’s way of doing business, whereas with black churches and smaller organizations, it’s always a problem. For African Americans, the role that religion and churches play in the society is construed differently. There’s less of a distinction between faith and public policy. That’s why the civil rights movement and many of the strongest voices advocating for legislation or for particular government initiatives are coming from religious leaders in the African American community. You don’t find that same situation in the dominant culture unless it’s something like this where there’s a rule imposed that contradicts church teaching.”
—Cheryl J. Sanders, Th.D., professor of Christian Ethics, Howard University
Camosy: ‘Perhaps Both Sides Were Disingenuous’
Dr. Charles C. Camosy
“The reason this became a serious public issue from which the administration had to backtrack was because ‘liberal’ Catholics were objecting and they were afraid they might lose significant Catholic support in important swing states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida, and Wisconsin. The objection of most ‘liberal’ Catholics was related to religious freedom of institutions. They don’t really see contraception (especially letting women make a decision about how to use contraception–either for health reasons or something else or both) as a morally significant issue.
‘Conservative’ Catholics, however, always objected to the mandate in a broad sense because they see especially abortifacient contraception as a very important moral issue–something which all people, regardless of religion or status as a religious employer, should be able to object to providing on the basis of conscience. Unfortunately for this point of view, in order to get “heard” by the administration and the left-leaning Catholics in the media, the line of argument had to be explicitly about the freedom of religious institutions with respect to the federal government. That makes the objections now being raised by the bishops less persuasive because it looks like the goal posts have shifted.
Something that doesn’t get talked about enough in all this is that Catholic teaching, and the U.S. bishops, consider health care to be a fundamental right. A woman can get the pill if she is taking it for what we would understand health reasons—she has an issue with her cycle, ovarian cysts/cancer, she has a condition which makes pregnancy threaten her life, etc. Why can’t a physician simply code a script for a patient in a way that treats a specific health condition? This is totally allowed under Catholic teaching. Unless, of course, the real issue is not about women’s health, but about having sex without having babies. Perhaps both ‘sides’ were disingenuous in speaking about ‘religious freedom’ and ‘women’s health’ when they actually meant something else.”
—Charles C. Camosy, Ph.D., assistant professor of Christian Ethics, Fordham University
Harper: ‘Commitment to Women Doesn’t Trump Religious Liberty’
Lisa Sharon Harper
“At the core of this issue is a debate between worldviews. These worldviews are held most dearly by the people who have the most interest in them. In one worldview, the debate is about the freedom of conscience for religious organizations, in particular hospitals and universities because other religious bodies were exempt from Obama’s ruling. It’s a legitimate concern. There were legitimate counter arguments on the other side, where you had the worldview of women and also people who are deeply invested in issues of poverty.
What I like about what I’ve seen, not only in Obama, but also in the country, is that around this issue, it’s not been a question of ideology, but a question of practicality. What will work to actually continue to protect the religious liberty of religious institutions and at the same time protect the liberty of individual women in America to access contraception? That is not only a right in America because it has to do with an individual’s body and ability to hold liberty over their own body, but also it has to do with the right to life, because we know that contraception is one of the biggest ways to help lessen the number of abortions in America. Sojourners put out a statement saying we like what we’ve seen and we agree with the overwhelming response of the religious community. Our nation is committed to standing behind the needs of women, in particular poor women. That commitment does not have to trump the American commitment to preserving religious liberty. It’s a brilliant compromise.”
—Lisa Sharon Harper, director of mobilizing, Sojourners
What do you think?
Was this a brilliant compromise, a matter of justice, or a disingenuous debate?
*Please note: Participant comments have been edited for length and clarity.