AUSTIN (Nexstar) — The recognition of Juneteenth as a new federal holiday brought lawmakers from both sides of the aisle together in the nation’s Capitol, but Texas historians said there’s more work to do to achieve equality.
The day commemorates June 19, 1865, when African American slaves in Galveston, Texas, were informed by the Union Army that President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation would be enforced. President Joe Biden made Juneteenth a national holiday starting Saturday.
“They learned that they were free, and they claimed their freedom,” Vice President Kamala Harris said during remarks at the bill signing ceremony at the White House. “It was indeed an important day.”
Traditional celebrations range from parades to potlucks, family gatherings to fireworks, bands to barbecuing.
The recognition marks a major milestone in honoring the nation’s past but does not absolve injustices inflicted on Black people in America, according to Dr. Theodore Francis, an assistant professor of history at Huston-Tillotson University’s department of fine arts.
“Just because there’s this important celebration and this important date, which marks a very important transition, it does not end many of the racialized inequalities and oppressions that Black Texans faced,” Francis said Friday, noting the commemoration is long overdue. The State of Texas made Juneteenth an official state holiday 40 years ago, and Black Texans have celebrated the day long before that.
“Juneteenth is an opportunity for African Americans to engage in a level of self determination, so that they can have control over the ways in which they celebrate and have a place for African Americans to celebrate things in the face of segregation, because we’ve got to recognize racial segregation was taking place in the state of Texas in 1907, when (a group of Austinites) purchased Emancipation Park,” Francis explained.
In 2016, the Texas African American History Memorial Foundation established a monument on the Texas Capitol grounds. The central portion of the memorial depicts the day African American slaves in Galveston learned the Emancipation Proclamation would be enforced.
“Galveston is known for its history, and no day has greater historical significance in Galveston than Juneteenth,” Galveston Mayor Craig Brown said in a city press release. “Juneteenth celebrates freedom for all Americans and our continued quest for Absolute Equality.”
U.S. Senator John Cornyn, a Republican from Texas, led the Senate effort to pass the Juneteenth legislation.
“I think it’s important for all Americans to learn that history,” he said during a call with reporters this week. “I think it’s actually a hopeful history, and one that should make us more optimistic about the future, and about the route race relations in America.”
But not all Texas elected officials approved of the plan. Congressman Ronny Jackson, whose 13th Congressional District includes Amarillo and Wichita Falls, voted against the measure in the House, citing concerns of giving federal employees more paid time off.
“I understand the economic concerns,” Cornyn said. “But in the end, I think the symbolism of this and the unity that came behind this effort is more important, particularly at this time.”
Francis said lawmakers should not stop there.
“It’s difficult to be exuberant — overly exuberant — about Juneteenth, when you still have Confederate Heroes Day on the calendar as an official holiday in states like Texas and other states, when you still have dates like Columbus Day. If you ask a Native American person or someone who’s steeped in American history and understands what Columbus has done to indigenous communities, these are tensions, right?” Francis said.
“So we must recognize that holidays are not healing, they are definitely welcome, people are thankful for them, however, they are not healing, and they should not be utilized as a way to sidestep the much needed social, cultural, historical, economic and political work, which must be done,” Francis explained.
Biden said he hoped the new national holiday would serve as a call to action for people across America to learn about its past and strive to bring equality and racial justice to society.
Juneteenth becomes the first new national holiday since the creation of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day close to four decades ago.