Juneteenth – Proclaiming freedom, acknowledging contributions

Published 4:57 pm Sunday, June 18, 2023

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President Joe Biden signed legislation making Juneteenth National Independence Day a U.S. federal holiday on June 17, 2021. Alabama Governor Kay Ivey proclaimed June 19, 2021 Juneteenth Day and this year communities across the state and the country prepare to observe the third anniversary of the holiday as a pivotal Emancipation Day and a remembrance of the long march toward equality as well as an acknowledgment of the contributions of African Americans to the nation.

Lowndes County Sheriff Chris West remembers celebrating July Fourth, Independence Day, as a little boy and recalls how friends and family gathered to enjoy the holiday.

“As a kid I remember the Fourth of July,” West said. “And I remember family, friends, and neighbors getting together, having picnics and cookouts. For a lot of black people, things that we learn are not our history. It’s the history of our country, but it’s not a history for the black people.”

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West explained that for many Black citizens, liberation for the colonies did not bring freedom. Even the post-civil-war Emancipation Proclamation did not convey immediate, lasting freedom for everyone.

While Juneteenth, officially known as Emancipation Day and also Juneteenth Independence Day and Freedom Day, became a national holiday in 2021, its roots reach back much farther in time. The proclamation intended to bring freedom to all Americans had limitations which many feel became especially clear on June 19, 1865, as enslaved people in Texas heard of the proclamation for the first time when Major General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas with some 2,000 Union troops and the message that slavery would no longer be tolerated.

“The Emancipation Proclamation broke the chains, but [in many cases] there was still mental slavery,” West said. “When I learned of what happened in Texas, and what took place during the Jim Crow era, that was brought even more to light.”

For West, Juneteenth is a reminder of conversations that need to be had – about slavery, reconstruction, and modern history as it relates to Black people in America.

“Down in Florida, the Governor is kicking back on a lot of stuff,” West said. “Other states are too. It’s going to have to be addressed sometime. I don’t know how to do it, but it’s going to have to be addressed.” 

Lowndes County Commissioner Robert Harris said observance of Juneteenth means that people of color are finally getting a recognition they should have received once the Emancipation Proclamation was signed in 1863.

“[Juneteenth] means people knowing that they are free,” Harris said. “It means that even though we still don’t get our fair share, we do have an opportunity to give notice to the unfair treatment we have received over the years. It means that other people could now know that we played a big part in building the United States of America.

“That’s what it means to me and I think it means that to most of the people who have lived it, who have gone through segregation, who have been suppressed, oppressed, and overlooked and are still being overlooked today.

House Bill 427, introduced in the Alabama legislature’s May session by Juandalynn Givan, D-Jefferson, aimed to make Juneteenth a permanent state holiday. The bill stalled in the house and was not passed. For now, Alabama observance of the day rests upon Ivey’s proclamation each year.

“I’m glad that the Governor went ahead and recognized [Juneteenth] as a state holiday in Alabama,” West said. “Our state has a history of being the ‘Heart of Dixie.’ So it’s always good for me when I see my state leading the way in recognizing a wrong and trying to make a right out of it.”