The American calendar is sprinkled with dates that are fused with the country’s history and its self-image. Independence Day, barely two weeks away, is one of those. So are Memorial Day, Veterans Day, Labor Day and the birth dates of great leaders such as George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.
So is today another landmark – Juneteenth, a date that acknowledges one of the most important events in the nation’s history. That it passes so faintly observed is a disservice to the nation’s character and its history.
This is the date in 1865 – after the end of the Civil War – that slaves in Texas learned they were free. As such, it serves as a commemoration of the abolishing of America’s original sin.
Slavery was enshrined in the Constitution, which held that for purposes of congressional representation, slaves would count as three-fifths of a person. It was a human abomination, one whose practitioners included Washington and Thomas Jefferson, and for which the nation paid mightily – and continues to pay.
Lincoln spoke of the terrible cost at his second inauguration. Although the war was nearly over, its duration then remained uncertain, and Lincoln feared that it could continue “until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword.”
Slavery was finally outlawed by the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which was passed by the House and Senate before Lincoln’s assassination and was ratified by the states eight months after his death. That story is the focus of Steven Spielberg’s 2012 film, “Lincoln.”
But on June 18 and 19, 1865, the event that the slaves of Galveston, Texas, were told about was the Emancipation Proclamation, the 1863 executive order by which Lincoln freed all slaves in the Confederacy. The date became known as Juneteeth, and it is recognized in one way or another by 42 states, including New York.
But barely. Observances were held in Buffalo and other areas this past weekend, but they don’t truly acknowledge the significance of the event, which is nothing less than the “new birth of freedom” Lincoln heralded in his Gettysburg Address.
The end of slavery was a signal moment in the life of the country; the one that allowed the nation to pursue the ideal, ironically noted by the slaveholder Jefferson, that “all men are created equal.” It gave us the chance to live up to the standards of our own better angels. It was, in no small way, our national salvation.
A date of such significance deserves more than a barbecue and a prayer. That it doesn’t get that attention, perhaps, is because it also forces us to acknowledge what came before, and the devastation it wrought on millions of Americans, black and white.
But, as a story just last week in The Buffalo News documented, slavery still flourishes, right here in Western New York. Human trafficking is illegal, but it continues unabated. We celebrate the Fourth of July, in part, because we know freedom can be lost. The same could well be said for Juneteenth.