Precisely 156 years ago in Galveston, Texas, on June 19, 1865, formerly enslaved Blacks in that state finally received official confirmation of their (supposed) freedom — two-and-a-half years late. Despite that delay, those 250,000 Black folks celebrated enthusiastically. Unfortunately, though, they weren’t really “free.” They were merely “free-ish.” And even their descendants — us — are still only “free-ish” in 2021.
As defined in Merriam-Webster Dictionary, “ish” means “having a trace of” or “being characteristic of.” Therefore, Black people in America still ain’t totally free. We’re merely “free-ish.”
You want proof? Here’s irrefutable proof: As documented by law professor and author Michelle Alexander, “More African-American men are in prison or jail ... (and) on probation or parole than were enslaved in 1850.”
Think about that for a second. More Black men are under the control of America’s criminal punishment system today than were enslaved 171 years ago. Wow!
It gets worse. The National Center for Education Statistics reports that Blacks have a high school drop-out rate of 6.4% compared to whites’ 4.2%. And the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics notes that Blacks have an unemployment rate of 10% compared to whites’ 5.9%. Moreover, the Children’s Defense Fund points out that “More than one in four Black children... (are) poor, compared with (only) one in twelve white children.”
Furthermore, although Blacks overall constitute 13.4% of the U.S. population, the Urban Institute — which was founded in 1968 by President Lyndon Baines Johnson and which currently has a staff of 550 economists, demographers, mathematicians, data scientists, and social scientists — indicates that, in 2021, Blacks have an 18.1% poverty rate compared to whites’ mere 9.6%.
It gets worst: the United States Census Bureau certified that while only 63% of eligible Blacks voted in the 2020 federal election, a whopping 71% of eligible whites did. In connection with this, the Brennan Center for Justice, an independent, nonpartisan law and policy organization that addresses voter registration and many other legal and political matters, reported that “As of February 19, 2021, (Republican) state lawmakers have carried over, pre-filed, or introduced 253 bills with provisions that restrict voting access in 43 states.” That means restricting Black folks’ voting access, which in turn means racist disenfranchisement. In fact, attorney Marc Elias, one of the country’s leading election law specialists for over 20 years, told Rachel Maddow of MSNBC that “Right now, we are facing an avalanche of voter suppression that we have not seen before ... since Jim Crow in state after state.”
Additionally, as documented by The Washington Post, “The GOP’s national push to enact hundreds of new election restrictions could ... potentially amount ... to the most sweeping contraction of ballot access in the United States since the end of Reconstruction, when Southern states curtailed the voting rights of formerly enslaved Blacks.”
And all of this comes on the heels of the 2013 Shelby County, Alabama v. Attorney General Eric Holder case wherein the U.S. Supreme Court effectively disenfranchised many Black voters when it invalidated two essential “pre-clearance” sections of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, thereby making it much easier for racist Southern (and other) states to disenfranchise Blacks.
You might ask what all of that has to do with Blacks being “free-ish” as opposed to being truly “free.” You might say those incarceration and probation/parole stats and those unemployment, poverty, and voting stats simply prove that Blacks are criminal and dumb and lazy and needy and apathetic. Well, if you ask that, I’ll answer that. And if you say that, I’ll correct that.
Here’s how: Without justice, Blacks have no chance of being treated fairly in the courts. Without education, Blacks have no chance of attaining productive employment. Without productive employment, Blacks have no chance of escaping poverty. Without wealth, Blacks have no chance of improving their social status. And at the core of social status is politics, which, as political scientist and author Harold Lasswell wrote, is defined as “who gets what, when, and how.” Therefore, without voting rights, Blacks have no chance of changing this systemically racist social system. And without voting rights, Blacks will remain only “free-ish.”
When I reference a systemically racist social system, I am referencing the one that began with slavery in 1619 and continued nonstop — even after slavery had supposedly, completely, and finally ended with Juneteenth on June 19, 1865. But slavery in the form of its brutally oppressive residue continued with the Redemption Era, the Black Codes, sharecropping, peonage labor, convict-leasing, mass lynchings, Jim Crow, the sabotaging of Brown v. Board of Education, legislative voter disenfranchisement, court-sanctioned gerrymandering, redlining, stop and frisk, police brutality/murder, and mass incarceration.
All of this proves without a doubt that we remain only “free-ish,” although it is indisputably better than the hell our formerly enslaved ancestors endured. Here are the indisputable historical facts about our Juneteenth ancestors. As mentioned in the beginning of this article, precisely 156 years ago in Galveston, Texas, on June 19, 1865, formerly enslaved Blacks in that state finally received official confirmation of their (supposed) freedom- two-and-a-half years late.
I should point out that Juneteenth’s name is a pormanteau, which is a linguistic blend of words that fuses sounds and meanings, i.e. the words June and nineteenth were combined by our ancestors to create the new “Juneteenth” word. They also called it Freedom Day, Emancipation Day, Jubilee Day and Black Independence Day.
Juneteenth is the oldest celebration commemorating the (purported) ending of slavery in America. And it is officially “observed” — which means it’s nothing more than empty words — in 47 states and D.C. Unfortunately, it’s a real holiday — which means a paid holiday — in only three states: Texas, Virginia and Pennsylvania.
Also, unfortunately, it’s not a paid holiday on the federal level, at least not yet. But thanks to U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas who introduced H.R. 7232 on June 18, 2020, and Sen. Edward Markey of Massachusetts who introduced S. 4019 on June 22, 2020, it could become a paid federal holiday in the form of the “Juneteenth National Independence Day Act.”
As you're reading this, you might be wondering why it took nearly two-and-a-half years — after President Abe Lincoln on Sept. 22, 1862, announced that his Emancipation Proclamation would go into effect Jan. 1, 1863 — for our ancestors in Texas to finally find out June 19, 1865, about their so-called freedom.
I’ll explain why. But first, I must explain why “Honest Abe’s” Emancipation Proclamation wasn’t even worth the paper it was written on. It didn’t really end slavery or free any of the approximately 4 million enslaved Blacks. It included only the Confederate states that were in rebellion and excluded enslaved populations in Northern states as well as specifically in Maryland, Delaware, Tennessee, “west/southeast” Virginia and lower Louisiana.
By the way, even the 13th Amendment, which was ratified on Dec. 6, 1865, didn’t really end slavery either. It didn’t say and still doesn’t say “slavery and involuntary servitude are hereby abolished” with a period at the end. Instead, it says “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, ‘shall’ exist within the United States....” Whoa! That means the 13th Amendment actually legalized slavery and involuntary servitude as long as racist white men subsequently create laws to use against Black folks, enforce those laws unjustly against Black folks, and lock up Black folks unjustly using those unjustly enforced laws.
But I digress. Allow me to return to the history of Juneteenth. It was born on that aforementioned June 19, 1865, date when Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston with 1,800 troops. From the Ashton Villa balcony, he announced General Order No. 3, which declared that “The people of Texas are informed that ... all ‘slaves’ are free. This involves an absolute equality of rights ... between former masters and ‘slaves’”
That’s cool and everything, at least as far as it goes. But why did it take so long for our ancestors in Texas to be notified after Lincoln’s 1862/1863 proclamation? It’s because following the capture of New Orleans by the Union Army in 1862, many worried “slaveholders” in Mississippi, Louisiana, and other states to the east packed up 150,000 of their Black human cargo and sought racist sanctuary in relatively faraway and lawless Texas in the southwest where it was believed those lawless “slaveholders” could escape the Union Army’s reach.
Learn more about Juneteenth by attending the nation’s largest Juneteenth event, which will take place Saturday, June 19 starting at 9 a.m. with the festival beginning at 52nd Street and Haverford Avenue. This will be immediately followed by a march to the inaugural “Art in the Park” exhibit at Malcolm X Park at 52nd and Pine streets. For more information, log onto juneteenthphilly.org or call 215-247-1545.
This year’s Juneteenth goal is to avenge our enslaved ancestors from Aug. 25, 1619, through Sept. 22, 1862, through Jan. 1, 1863, through Dec. 6, 1865 as well as our “free-ish” ancestors from June 19, 1865, through today by fighting for passage of the “Juneteenth National Independence Day Act.”
Oh, and by the way, let’s also “do for self” by moving from being “free-ish” to being truly “free.”