Juneteenth (June 19) has yet again rolled around and passed. What began as former slaves in Texas commemorating the arrival of the Union Army in 1865 and their liberation from bondage has morphed in more recent years into an informal date to remember freedom for all the slaves. There is nothing wrong with that. Holidays can serve an important purpose of focusing society on important events in the past. Indeed, many holidays in the United States serve that purpose. (July 4, Independence Day,the grand daddy of them all is just around the corner.) Certainly, the end of slavery in this country is an event that deserves to be remembered, since it was a moment in which the United States took a giant step to living closer to its own creed of freedom.
Having decided an event is worth a public holiday, the question then becomes when and how should people celebrate it? About a year ago, Allen Guelzo, Henry R. Luce III Professor of the Civil War Era at Gettysburg College, advocated in the National Review Online that a holiday should be established to commemorate the Emancipation Proclamation. I liked the idea of some sort of holiday to celebrate slave emancipation in the United States, but then and now I am not keen on focusing the celebration on the Emancipation Proclamation. I honor and revere this document, but the danger in celebrating it in particular is it would focus the remembrance on Abraham Lincoln instead of the slaves and promote the idea that emancipation came at a particular moment and due to the will of one man.
As Eric Foner has asserted (and as I concur) emancipation was a historical process. The end of slavery in the United States came slowly. It began with the First Emancipation in the North that started during the Revolutionary War and continued so long, there were still a handful of slaves in New Jersey on the eve of the Civil War. Slaveholders in the South, where the institution was more entrenched, did not join in the first emancipation except for some individual owners in the Upper South that took advantage of laws that made slave manumission easier. Any possibility of a voluntary end to slavery in the South ended with the rise of cotton cultivation that not only made slavery pay for slaveholders, but also pay handsomely. Making a fortune on “King Cotton” and convinced emancipation would ignite a bloody race war, white Southerners increasingly resisted the idea of freeing the slaves over the first six decades of the nineteenth century. It would take a horrific Civil War to extinguish slavery in the American South, and even then slavery effectively ended incrementally over the course of the war, as slaves fled to Union lines, were freed when federal troops established control of where they lived, or as changes in federal or state law/policy went into effect in their location. There was not one moment in the Civil War, when all the slaves became free, certainly not when the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect. And the advent of the 13th Amendment, at the end of 1865, banning slavery in the United States, merely brought the process to an end by freeing the residual number of slaves who had not been freed before over the course the Civil War.
In terms of a holiday, that creates a problem of how does a nation celebrate a historical process? Of course, for a long time emancipation was not celebrated outside the African American community, which has left a definite imprint on the commemoration of emancipation. As I wrote last year in response to Guelzo:
One important point about black celebrations of freedom was liberated slaves did it on a schedule that was meaningful to them. For example, one of the most famous emancipation celebrations is Juneteenth, typically celebrated on June 19. On this date in 1865, Union General Gordon Granger, recently arrived in Galveston with 2,000 federal troops, issued an order enforcing the Emancipation Proclamation in Texas. So July 22, 1862 [the date Lincoln announced the Emancipation Proclamation to his Cabinet] had no particular meaning to the Texas slaves because they did not effectively become free for nearly three more years. Neither did September 22, 1862 (when Lincoln made the Emancipation Proclamation public) or January 1, 1863 (when it became final) because on those days Texas slaves were still in bondage. So understandably, former Texas slaves began in 1866 commemorating the day they actually gained their freedom.
The same thing is true elsewhere in the United States. In Florida, May 20 is the unofficial emancipation commemoration day because on that date in 1865, Union general Edward McCook read the Emancipation Proclamation in Tallahassee, bringing slavery there to an effective end. In Columbus, Mississippi, Emancipation Day is May 8, locally called ”Eight o’ May,” commemorating the day the slaves there learned of their freedom. In Paducah and McCracken County, Kentucky, Emancipation Day is August 8, again when the slaves there learned they were free. Emancipation Day in District of Columbia, which falls on April 16, is the day Abraham Lincoln signed congressional legislation freeing slaves there, effectively making slaves there free (although in modern times, in practice the commemoration is shifted a day or two some years to give government workers a three-day weekend).
In short, if emancipation’s celebration in the United States was and remains a rather decentralized, ad hoc affair, perhaps it is because emancipation itself was a rather decentralized, ad hoc event. First, it effectively occurred at many different times in many different places. Second, Abraham Lincoln could exert his considerable executive power to make it happen, but in the end many other people’s cooperation was required to implement it against the wishes of millions of Americans in opposition.
So maybe the United States does not really need a formal national holiday to celebrate emancipation. Instead, the informal ad hoc manner it is celebrated today, through Juneteenth and other commemorations better captures what was a historical process that took nearly a century and involved a cast of millions. A formal national holiday would carry the danger of promoting the false notion that freedom came a definite moment due entirely to the action of one man and/or the actions of elites, instead of the lengthy, complex historical process in which the slaves themselves played a significant part as actors in their own liberation.