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Heightened Awareness Of Juneteenth Comes Amid Discussions On Race, Culture In America

Juneteenth Emancipation Day Celebration, June 19, 1900, Texas.
Mrs. Charles Stephenson (Grace Murray)
The Portal to Texas History Austin History Center, Austin Public Library

Governor Ron DeSantis has signed a proclamation observing today, June 19. It’s the date in 1865 when African Americans in Texas learned of the Emancipation Proclamation. It was the last Confederate state to receive the news. The date is celebrated as an official holiday or observance in most states but not all. Now, amid discussions about race in the United States, this year’s Juneteenth is taking on a higher prominence.

President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863 in the third year of the Civil War. In it, he declared "That on the first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free; and the Executive Government of the United States, including the military and naval authority thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons, and will do no act or acts to repress such persons, or any of them, in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom.”

But according to the National Archives, the extent of the Proclamation was limited.

“It applied only to states that had seceded from the United States, leaving slavery untouched in the loyal border states. It also expressly exempted parts of the Confederacy (the Southern secessionist states) that had already come under Northern control. Most important, the freedom it promised depended upon Union (United States) military victory,” the archives writes in its description of the Proclamation.

It would take the document two years to circulate through the U.S. with the last enslaved African-Americans learning of it in Texas on June 19, 1865, a date that would eventually become Juneteenth.

“They had no telephones, no television, no radio no fax machines, nothing. So they got the news by these union soldiers who rode throughout the country,” state Rep. Geraldine Thompson explained to NPR member station WMFE in Orlando.

Thompson notes the soldiers got to Tallahassee on May 20th,1865. Union Brigadier General Edward M. McCook announced the news at the Knott House. The moment is marked by a yearly commemoration on those very steps.

“I think everyone should know when, why, and where their freedom was decided and what was decided about their freedom,” Keith Rodgers, founder and CEO of Black on Black Rhyme told WFSU in 2017. “They say if you don’t know your past, you’re doomed to repeat it. You’d be surprised what people don’t know until you realize that they don’t know.”

This year’s commemoration also carries greater significance than in years past. Increasing awareness of race and cultural disparities are boosting the date in the public eye.

“There needs to be some commemoration for the end of slavery in America, said Thompson. For too long, it’s been overlooked and overshadowed.”

She’s supporting an effort to make the holiday federally recognized.

“We celebrate July 4th as America’s independence, and I think this is just as important in terms of the independence and freedom of African Americans,” she said.

Florida lawmakers considered a memorial requesting Congress make Juneteenth a federal holiday earlier this year, and while the Senate voted to adopt it, the measure didn’t get a House hearing.

This year marks the 155th anniversary of Juneteenth. At present, 45 states including Florida and the District of Columbia celebrate the day as a holiday or observance. Texas was the first state to make it a state holiday. Florida was the second.

Governor Ron DeSantis has marked the date with a proclamation as well. In it he says “Juneteenth is an important opportunity to honor the principals of the Declaration of Independence and celebrate the achievements and contributions African-Americans have made and continue to make in Florida, and across our Nation.”

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Lynn Hatter is a Florida A&M University graduate with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Lynn has served as reporter/producer for WFSU since 2007 with education and health care issues as her key coverage areas.  She is an award-winning member of the Capital Press Corps and has participated in the NPR Kaiser Health News Reporting Partnership and NPR Education Initiative. 

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