Every Independence Day, I have 30 to 40 family and friends at my house in Evanston for a cookout. I always brag that my menu of chicken rice pilaf with vegetables, grilled fish, turkey burgers, chicken hot links, grilled Brussels sprouts, asparagus, cabbage and baked sweet potatoes is much healthier than the traditional cookout foods of pork ribs, potato salad, baked beans and beef hamburgers. In addition to the fact that my food offerings do not fit traditional cookout menus, my guests and I also engage in other unique traditions on this day of celebration.
Our first custom is the celebration of birthdays for people who were born on or close to July 4. This always includes Ralph and Ms. Barbara. I give them separate birthday cakes, loaded with lit candles. Everyone serenades them with the “Happy Birthday” song that Patty and Mildred Hill wrote in the 1890s, and, as is customary in the Black community, at the end of that song, we segue seamlessly into the first few stanzas of the “Happy Birthday” song that Stevie Wonder wrote in 1980. Stevie’s song was written to celebrate and advocate making a holiday of the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., one of the world’s greatest leaders.
Our other tradition on Independence Day is to recognize, celebrate, and read the words of other great Black people in American history. At our last gathering before COVID two summers ago, we identified those great people as the Black men and women who were freed from slavery. A representative from each of the families attending the cookout was selected to read to the group gathered in a big circle the words published in newspapers after slavery ended in 1865. The words recited were from ads put in newspapers, by people formerly enslaved, who were now searching for their family members. The ads were from husbands looking for their wives, sisters looking for their siblings, and mothers looking for their children. The following is one such ad published in the Southwestern Christian Advocate newspaper:
“Dear Editor – I wish to inquire for my three children. Mollida Barnett, the first one, left me about 40 years ago, was bought by speculators in Charlotte, N.C. and carried to Columbus, AL. Mary Slaughter, was carried from Canton to New Orleans. She belonged to Lewis Slaughter, who sold her in New Orleans. Daughter Ellen used to belong to Bill Smith and he sold her to William Buckles, who carried her to Texas. Address me at Canton, MS. My name was Eliza Dancey when the children went away, but now it is Eliza Handy.”
Our group read six of these newspaper ads. Throughout the readings, almost everyone was in tears.
At the cookout a year earlier, a member from each family had read two lines from the famous speech given by abolitionist Frederick Douglass. He gave the speech “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” on July 5, 1852, to an all-white audience who invited him to be a keynote speaker at an event celebrating the Declaration of Independence. In this speech he condemned whites for celebrating personal freedoms while enslaving Black people.
He stated: “I say it with a sad sense of the disparity between us. I am not included within the pale of glorious anniversary … The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought light and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn …”
This sense of sadness that Douglass expressed reflects my own feelings about Juneteenth. I have bittersweet emotions about this day that is a state holiday or “special day of observance” in every state except North Dakota, South Dakota, Hawaii, and Montana.
The word “Juneteenth” comes from a combination of the month of June and the 19th day. It was on this date in 1865 that Union troops rode into Galveston, Texas, and enforced the Emancipation Proclamation of President Lincoln, that had become effective on Jan. 1, 1863. It declared that “all persons held as slaves within the rebellious states are and henceforward, shall be free.”
This executive order mandating the emancipation of enslaved Black people is the positive part of my “bittersweet” feelings. Unfortunately, Texas was the last of the original 11 Southern states that constituted the Confederate States of America to comply with the dictate of the Emancipation Proclamation. The Texas confederate military fought the Union military until May of 1865. Even in defeat, the confederate Texans did not extend the fact of freedom to Black enslaved men, women, and children. The knowledge and fact of freedom came to them on June 19th when the federal government sent Union troops into Galveston to enforce the decree. Subsequently, on June 20th, Blacks were emancipated in Houston, and in Austin on June 23rd.
The dark reality that Blacks gained their freedom only after federal troops enforced that fact is a primary cause of my negative feelings about Juneteenth. It leaves a bitter taste in my mouth, because it presages the need of future government actions to ensure or endow Black people with their rightful freedoms.
I am specifically talking about the need for federal troops to enforce the desegregation of a public high school in 1957. Federalized national guard and U.S. Army troops were required to safely escort nine Black students into Little Rock Central High School.
Similarly, in 1963, federalized national guard troops were needed so that Black students could enroll safely at the University of Alabama. Accordingly, the use of federal troops to guarantee the rights of recently emancipated Blacks in Texas was an ominous precursor.
My final negative feeling about Juneteenth comes from my disappointment with the limited scope of the Emancipation Proclamation itself. It only declared as free men and women those Black people enslaved in 11 states of the Confederacy. It did not free enslaved people in Union slave states (Missouri, Maryland, Kentucky, Delaware) or any Northern states. Emancipation reached these states at the end of 1865 with the passage of the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery in every state in the country.
As a child, I was taught in school that President Lincoln was the “great emancipator” because he freed Blacks who were enslaved, but the truth is that he only issued the Emancipation Proclamation as a way to weaken the Confederacy by taking away their free labor of enslaved people. The proclamation also encouraged Black enslaved men to join the Union army. Over 200,000 men did so.
Blacks were not freed because Lincoln believed it was wrong to enslave another human being, but with the sole objective of bringing the country back together and ending the war. As he told the Daily National Intelligencer newspaper in 1862, “My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that.”
Some have argued that Lincoln’s intentions should be ignored because his actions are most important. In this instance, it is difficult for me to separate intentions from results. And that is why my feelings about Juneteenth are bittersweet.
However, despite those conflicting feelings, I was elated to learn a few days ago that a bill to make Juneteenth a federal holiday was passed in the U.S. Senate. And, like many Americans, including most of the 30 million Black Americans, I will be happily celebrating the Independence of my ancestors, on Juneteenth!
Steven Rogers, of Evanston, is a retired professor at Harvard Business School and author of “A Letter to My White Friends and Colleagues: What You Can Do Right Now to Help the Black Community.”
This article, which first appeared in the Daily Herald, was reprinted with permission from Steven Rogers.