June 19 marks Juneteenth, a celebration of the de facto end of slavery in the United States.
For hundreds of thousands of African-Americans stuck in pretrial detention – accused but not convicted of a crime, and unable to leave because of bail – that promise remains unfulfilled. And coming immediately before Father’s Day, it’s also a reminder of the loss associated with the forced separation of families.
On a very personal level, I know how this separation feels. Every Father’s Day since 2011, I’ve been reminded of the unexpected death of my dad at the age of 48. But also on a professional level, as a criminologist who has been researching mass incarceration for the past decade, I understand the disproportionate impact it’s had on African-Americans, destabilizing black families in the process.
Blacks behind bars
Juneteenth is a celebration of African-Americans’ triumph over slavery and access to freedom in the U.S., which occurred in Galveston, Texas, in June of 1865, over two and a half years after President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.
While Juneteenth is a momentous day in U.S. history, it is important to appreciate that the civil rights and liberties promised to African-Americans have yet to be fully realized. As legal scholar Michelle Alexander forcefully explains, this is a consequence of Jim Crow laws and the proliferation of incarceration that began in the 1970s, including the increase of people placed in pretrial detention and other criminal justice policies.
In local jails alone, over 300,000 people are awaiting trial for property, drug or public order crimes. And again, these disproportionately black defendants are confined and separated from their families, friends and jobs simply because they lack the means to post cash bail – the only reason they can’t get out.
Toll on families
It should be no surprise, then, that 1 in 9 black children now has a parent behind bars, compared with the national rate of 1 in 28.
The aim of the project is to provide both financial and legal support for defendants lacking resources to independently secure their pretrial release, with the goal of the campaign being the release of jailed fathers so that they could be with their kids for the holiday.
On one hand, the multiplication of these organizations is encouraging and reason for optimism. On the other, their growth is another reminder that many of the freedoms celebrated on Juneteenth remain unrealized.
Children suffer. Parents struggle. Relationships deteriorate. And as a result, so too do so many African-American communities. Lost wages matter to families, but they also matter to communities. The lower tax base that results makes it more difficult for struggling public institutions, like schools, to progress. And with such a large share of individuals removed from some communities due to incarceration, and branded as felons upon their release, these communities lose potential voters and the political capital they carry. They are too often disenfranchised and stripped of their full power and potential.
Juneteenth celebrates the freedom of black Americans and the long, hard road they were forced to traverse to gain that freedom. But as criminologists like me have maintained time and again, the U.S. criminal justice system remains biased, albeit implicitly, against them.
Today Twitter, Facebook, Instagram; even parks and some backyards are overflowing with the celebration of “Juneteenth.”
What is it, exactly?
Juneteenth Celebration in Texas, June 19, 1900 (Photo Credit: Austin History Center, Austin Public Library)
Juneteenth is the oldest known celebration that commemorates the actual ending of slavery in the United States. Although President Lincoln signed The Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, it was not until June 19, 1865 that the Union soldiers, led by General Gordon Granger, landed at Galveston, TX, with news that the war ended and the enslaved were free at last!
The Emancipation Proclamation had very little impact on Texas in 1863 due to the minimal number of Union troops in that area to enforce the new Executive Order. Of course some questioned President Lincoln’s authority over the rebellious states, but for whatever reason conditions in Texas remained the same well beyond what was statutory. However, with the surrender of General Lee in April of 1865, and with the arrival of General Granger’s regiment, the forces finally had enough strength to overcome the resistance.
Today, Juneteenth is experiencing an extreme growth rate within communities and organizations around the country. The Smithsonian, the Henry Ford Museum, and a few other organizations have begun sponsoring Juneteenth –centered activities. It currently celebrates African American freedom and achievement, encourages continuous self-development and respect for all cultures. Although the historic day is celebrated mostly in Texas, it is now taking on a more national and even more global perspective.
If you didn’t know your history before, now you know!
With the release of films such as 12 Years a Slaveand TheBirth of a Nationand 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.
“[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.
The Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, a group of thousands of black churches involved in local and global social justice issues, is coming together for Juneteenth to galvanize faith-based action against the new Jim Crow that Alexander writes about in her book.
“The fact that more than half of the young black men in any large American city are currently under the control of the criminal justice system (or saddled with criminal records) is not—as many argue—just a symptom of poverty or poor choices, but rather evidence of a new racial caste system at work,” Alexander wrote in her book. She elaborated on her ideas about the new Jim Crow and the movement against it in an exclusive interview with UrbanFaith.
Iva Carruthers, general secretary of the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, said mass incarceration is a moral and civil rights issue that the black faith community cannot ignore.
“If you walked into a black church on a Sunday morning and asked, ‘How many of you have been affected directly or indirectly by this issue?’, you’d see everyone standing from the pulpit to the pews,” Carruthers said.
Inspired by Alexander’s book, the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference coordinated an effort to raise awareness about the new Jim Crow during church services on Juneteenth, this Sunday. They designed a bulletin insert for congregations to use, which includes facts about mass incarceration, quotes from Scripture, and a Juneteenth and Father’s Day litany.
“It’s not an event, but the beginning of transformative ministry resources that can help propel a movement,” Carruthers said.
Among those resources is a New Jim Crow study guide the nonprofit wrote for churches and book clubs. The guide examines connections to Scripture and African American history and culture chapter by chapter, and then lists multiple sets of data on mass incarceration. At the end of each chapter, the guide uses the African concept of Sankofa—defining it as “to go back and fetch knowledge from our past in order to move forward with wisdom”—to encourage people of faith to take action.
This week, the nonprofit has joined other groups for several events, including a youth town hall meeting in Chicago with Judge Greg Mathis in Chicago, a rally at St. Sabina Catholic Church in Chicago with Father Michael Pfleger, and a Real Men Cook Father’s Day event at Chicago State University (see website for schedule and details).
Alexander teamed up with the nonprofit when she was looking to connect with churches and a colleague directed her to Carruthers. From there, the group invited her to speak on the new Jim Crow at their annual conference in February and used her book to frame their activism.
“Michelle Alexander helped connect the dots in identifying characteristics of the system, in a compelling argument,” Carruthers said. (See a video clip from Alexander’s presentation below.)
Both the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference and Alexander have a vision to see churches not only helping individuals, but also organizing to combat systemic issues. Carruthers said the nonprofit started up in 2003 in response to concerns that the black church “had become less vocal and visible in issues of justice” in the post-Civil Rights Era. Since then, the church network has responded to issues such as Hurricane Katrina, hunger in Africa, and the earthquake in Haiti.
“If a faith community doesn’t speak to what’s wrong in a given society, then who will?” Carruthers said.
For more information on how you and your church can get involved in this campaign, read the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference’s ministry alert and complete the New Jim Crow Campaign interest form.
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