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Juneteenth and a National Reminder

An old African proverb says, “Until the lion tells the story, the hunter will always be the hero.” This is why Juneteenth is so important. We have statues, flags, and even holidays that point to the confederacy of this nation. We erect symbols of oppression to celebrate one of the darkest periods in America’s history. But on June 17, 2021, President Biden signed a bill that is a critical step in letting the lion tell her story of slavery, the Civil War, and emancipation. In signing this bipartisan bill, Americans are asked to “acknowledge and condemn the history of slavery in our Nation and recognize how the impact of America’s original sin remains.” Even with the bill’s signing, many don’t know what Juneteenth is, why it matters, or the woman who fought for decades to ensure this country’s memory is accurate and holistic.

On January 1, 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect, freeing all enslaved peoples across the States. While the news traveled and was enforced in many Southern states, it was 2.5 years before it reached Galveston, Texas, and was accompanied by federal soldiers to ensure compliance. On June 19, 1865, 250,000 people were finally freed from slavery. The day was later commemorated as “Juneteenth.”

While the holiday was widely known more in the South than in other regions of the States, too few people knew about the lag time. We weren’t told about the injustice of the wait poured into the wounds of people already subjected to enslavement, rape, and a host of dehumanizing practices. Lincoln signed the Emancipation, but there were slave owners that held out as long as they could until being forced to give freedom to people that never should have been enslaved in the first place.

In 2016, Ms. Opal Lee, the Grandmother of Juneteenth, had enough of the secrecy. She knew that wounds do not get healed if they stay covered up. Ms. Lee set out to walk from Fort Worth to Washington D.C. at a pace of 2.5 miles in the morning and the afternoon to signify the 2.5 years it took for slaves to be free from Galveston. Her walk increased awareness in communities along her route, and family members, concerned about her health, asked her to amend her plans by joining the local Juneteenth celebrations. While no change is ever achieved alone, if it were not for the efforts of Ms. Lee, many of us would still not know the significance of this day and the work necessary to secure a basic human right for Black Americans.

As you take time to celebrate today, in the words of Ms. Lee, I want to remind us if people have been taught to hate, they can be taught to love, and it is up to you to do it."

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