The 19th’s fellows reflect on the meaning of freedom in honor of Juneteenth

Originally published by The 19th

Rebekah Barber, Katherine Gilyard, Daja E. Henry, and Ashaki “Nzingha” Thompson-Hall are 2022-2023 Frances Ellen Watkins Harper fellows. Explore their work.

the 19th

President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation declared that as of January 1, 1863, “all persons held as slaves” within the Confederacy “are, and henceforward shall be free.”

But it wasn’t until June 19, 1865, that Gen. Gordon Granger and his Union troops rode into Galveston, Texas, to enforce that freedom. Though the newfound and hard-fought-for freedom was lifetimes more than a day late and a dollar short, it was still celebrated. 

By the next year, the commemoration of the day all enslaved Americans were granted their independence had been dubbed “Juneteenth.” 

“Black people have always been involved in the fight to make our own American lives, demanding something of the country that stole so much from us. That fact is, by folktale and firm record, key to the Juneteenth story,” Time magazine Race and Identities senior correspondent Janell Ross writes in her 2021 article on the holiday’s significance.

In 2021, the efforts of people like Lula Briggs Galloway and Opal Lee, often referred to as the “grandmother of Juneteenth,” to get official recognition of the holiday paid off. President Joe Biden signed into law the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act, cementing Juneteenth as a federal holiday. 

While the observation of Juneteenth, also known as Freedom Day, started in small gatherings in Texas, its evolution into an annual honoring for Black Americans across the country continues today. This year, 161 years later, the 19th’s fellows reflect on the meaning of Juneteenth, freedom, and remembrance. 

To me, celebrating Juneteenth is both an act of remembrance and a call to action. 

I honor women like Susie King Taylor, who endeavored in a lifelong pursuit of freedom for both herself and others. Born enslaved in Georgia, she learned to read by attending secret schools run by free Black women. She joined the United States Colored Troops as a laundress but also served as a cook and nurse, cleaned and tested weapons, and taught soldiers how to read. After the war, she advocated for poorly treated veterans and opened schools to equip people with tools for liberation.

Taylor did not stop after gaining her own freedom or after the war ended. She never received a dime for her service, but worked until her dying day to ensure that others would see true freedom too. That’s what Juneteenth means to me. It is a reminder that liberation is a continuous process. 

Not only is the fight continuous, but it is one in which we must remain vigilant. While Juneteenth became a jubilant celebration for many of the newly freed, there were also many who remained in bondage or faced the violent wrath of their former owners. Texan Charles W. Brown’s former owner shot him in the chest and left him for dead after delivering the news of his freedom. Tennessean Catherine Riley was beaten unconscious with a club when she tried to retrieve her child from their former owner. Brown and Riley lived to tell their stories. Many didn’t. 

That is why I do the work of storytelling, of amplifying the voices of those affected by injustice. 

Juneteenth’s aftermath is a reminder that there are still people out there who benefit when we don’t know what power we have and will do anything to keep it that way. — Daja E. Henry, editorial fellow 

When I think about Juneteenth, I am filled with pride — pride for my people and pride for my ancestors who fought so that I might be free. 

Like Ms. Opal Lee, “the grandmother of Juneteenth,” who called upon us to address existing disparities like homelessness, health care access, and climate change, I also see Juneteenth as a call to action. 

I am filled with a commitment to speak out against modern-day slavery, which is still legal under the 13th Amendment of the United States Constitution: mass incarceration. I am reminded of how Black people are incarcerated at nearly five times the rate of White Americans and that Black women are incarcerated at nearly 1.6 times the rate of White women

Nearly 160 years after the abolishment of chattel slavery, Black people are also still underpaid. In 2020, Black women earned only 58 cents for every dollar earned by White, non-Hispanic men. Because the work of Black people continues to uphold the economy in many ways, as many of us enjoy this day off, it will be disproportionately Black workers and other workers of color who will have to work to keep this country running. 

As the nation celebrates this federal holiday, it is increasingly important that the history behind Juneteenth not be lost. We must heed  Lee’s call to continue fighting against disparities in all forms. In the words of Audre Lorde: “I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own.” — Rebekah Barber, editorial fellow

I am very lucky to have been raised in a household that valued and honored the history and legacy of African-American activists and leaders. Growing up, it was the norm to attend lectures from the likes of Nikki Giovanni and Ntozake Shange. I had the honor of meeting Frankie Muse Freeman in high school and I learned about the work she did to end legal racial discrimination in public housing in St. Louis. My childhood consisted of formal and informal curriculum sessions that centered our stories. 

When I think of these positive environments, I am delighted to know that millions of Black children will understand the importance and relevance of Juneteenth. One of the ways that I learned about the history of my ancestors was through storytelling events at local libraries and festivals. It was so exciting to sit and gather with other young children and listen and learn about the people who never knew me, but chose to love me. 

I think as a professional writer, I want to honor my inner Black child by continuing to share the stories of those who came before me. I want to share the stories of my peers and elders. What makes us feel free? What legacies and gifts are we excited to share with the next generation? I am excited to investigate these narratives and share them with the world. 

As Tracey Michae’l Lewis-Giggetts wrote in “Black Joy: Stories of Resistance, Resilience, and Restoration”:

“You hand us the fatback of a pig, and we use it to make savory greens. You hand us a fledgling radio station, and we turn it into a media empire. … We are alchemists. So our ability to transform our lived experience — even the ones plagued by trauma — is the very reason why we should internalize our acceptance and release ourselves from any obligation to be something other than who we are, individually and collectively.” — Nzingha H., audience fellow

For me, right now, Juneteenth means the chance, the honor, and the duty to remember. 

To remember how much Black folks’ survival has depended on the limits or grace of White folks’ hate. And what that continues to mean for us today.

For the past couple of months, my reporting has landed me brain-deep in the history of the 1921 Tulsa massacre. The burning of America’s Black Wall Street, one of the most consequential events of racial terror and displacement in American history, isn’t truly unique or exceptional in its horrors because the nightmare has been toured across the country and American history before 1921 and through today. 

That reporting journey has reminded me of other atrocities, like that of Fannie Lou Hamer’s torture at the hands of Mississippi police that left her permanently disabled. Or that of Ida B. Wells’ friend Thomas Moss, whose slaying in the People’s Grocery Lynchings spurred her work as an anti-lynching crusader. 

I remember because Black folks haven’t always been allowed or encouraged to. 

In 2018, the Equal Justice Initiative opened to the public a memorial in Montgomery, Alabama, “dedicated to the legacy of enslaved Black people, people terrorized by lynching, African Americans humiliated by racial segregation and Jim Crow, and people of color burdened with contemporary presumptions of guilt and police violence.” 

“The nation’s first,” the description reads. Whether they meant it as a boast or indictment, I’m uncertain. 

I have been intentional in spending time with violence and its afterbirth, learning of the loss, of the taking, of the mandatory resilience required of Black folks, of what I find myself bewildered to call hope. 

As we mark Juneteenth and all it means, it’s something I’m striving to hold space for. — Katherine C. Gilyard, editorial fellow

juneteenth fellows reflections

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