I was in my late thirties before I recall hearing the word “Juneteenth.” I was serving a church in St. Joseph, MO and the African American community in that small city had a Juneteenth celebration each June 19. I recall asking, “What is Juneteenth?” and when I heard the answer wondering why I had never heard of the holiday before?
“Juneteenth” is a shortened form of “June 19”, which was the date in 1965 when the Emancipation Proclamation was finally declared in the last Confederate state to hear it. When Union troops landed in Galveston, TX on June 19, 1865, the Union general made a public proclamation that all enslaved people were free. Many slaveholders in Confederate states took their slaves to Texas for fear of the slaves being freed by Union troops. By the original Juneteenth, an estimated 250,000 enslaved African Americans were in Texas. The celebration that ensued in Galveston after the general’s words inspired future celebrations.
Part of honoring Juneteenth is the recognition that Lincoln declared slaves in Confederate states free as of January 1, 1865, but it took almost two and a half years for that to become known in all the Confederate states. Justice, when it comes to race, is always delayed. Indeed, Lincoln’s proclamation only applied to slaves in Confederate states, and it wasn’t until the Thirteenth Amendment was passed on December 6, 1865 that slaves in Union states were officially freed. The emancipation of slaves in Texas wasn’t settled law until Texas Supreme Court decisions in 1874. Historians and activists today note that real freedom for African Americans has been hard won only in steps through Jim Crow up until the present moment.
I never learned about Juneteenth in any of my formal education. I also didn’t learn about redlining and racial housing segregation in Kansas City and every other American city. I learned about Martin Luther King, Jr. but I didn’t know the history of lynchings across the country including Kansas City. I learned George Washington’s teeth were made of wood, but I only recently discovered some of them were human teeth that came from his slaves. I learned about our Founding Fathers, but I didn’t learn that many of them were slaveholders who believed in brutal violence against their human property. Why did it take so long for me to learn such things?
I believe most white people of my generation and older are having to re-learn American history or maybe un-learn the way it was taught to us. The advances in technology and the small steps towards racial equality have meant more voices are being heard than ever before. I grew up in predominantly white spaces where educators knowingly or unknowingly taught me things like the Civil War was about states’ rights rather than slavery. I visited southern plantations where tour guides refused to talk about the brutal lives of enslaved people. In sum, I learned a “whitewashed” history that failed to reckon with centuries of slavery and state sponsored racism. My learning curve has been pretty steep.
White folks have a choice to make, we can view our new understandings about America’s history as an attack upon our identities, getting defensive and viewing ourselves as victims or we can respond with humility, listening, learning and allowing ourselves to take in painful but ultimately redemptive new ideas.
I grew up with a white Jesus too. My children’s Bible had a Jesus who looked Norwegian! As I grew up and came to understand Jesus was a brown Semitic man who didn’t look like me, I still didn’t understand the significance of a whitewashed Jesus. It wasn’t until I ended up with two black sons and I read to them from a children’s Bible each night at bedtime, that I fully understood how important it was for my brown boys to see pictures where Jesus was brown too. How we tell the stories of our past matters in ways and at a level white folks like me grew up not having to understand, but if we truly wish to love our neighbors as ourselves, we have to re-learn/un-learn history (including our religious history) as we have known it.
An essential part of learning is admitting what one doesn’t know. I admit I have a lot to learn about the history of racism in America. An essential part of being a Christian is learning the stories of other people, I also admit I have a lot to learn about the history of suffering by African Americans.
If you would like to learn more about Juneteenth and participate with African Americans envisioning a new world, there are plenty of opportunities to do so. One good option happens on June 27 noon-1:30 pm. The Greater Kansas City Disciples will offer a Juneteenth commemoration via Zoom. It will include presentations on KC history and a Q&A time. kcdisciples.org
Grace and Peace,