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How Juneteenth's history is being reshaped as America reckons with its past

"Much like June 1865, this moment, the one we live in now, this is a big moment of reckoning," one historian said.
Image: An African-American couple dressed in 19th century garb, next to a modern Black family surrounded by red hibiscus flowers and a BLM sign.
Juneteenth, the holiday marking when enslaved Africans achieved freedom in the United States 155 years ago, is traditionally celebrated with cookouts, concerts and prayer services.Diana Ejaita / for NBC News

Some of the men, particularly the colored Union troops out of New York and Illinois, were appalled.

It had been 2½ years since President Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation went into effect, freeing every man, woman and child enslaved in the rebel states. And it had been more than two months since Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee had surrendered, ending the nation's bloody four-year Civil War. But as the roughly 2,000 soldiers assigned to accompany Union Gen. Gordon Granger came ashore on Galveston Island, Texas, in mid-June 1865, the truth could not be missed. There were still enslaved people in Galveston.

A group of colored soldiers approached Granger and said it plain: You will do something about this, or we will.

"That is the story of what we now refer to as Juneteenth, 1865," said Deborah Evans, vice chair and director of communications for the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation. The foundation has worked for more than 25 years to improve school curriculums and encourage states, as well as the federal government, to formally recognize the holiday. "That's the version that includes us, that puts us at the center, not the sidelines."

Evans' story is a bit different from the tension-free accounts of the day slavery ended in the United States — the versions that have made their way into corporate statements, newscasts and conversations all over the country this week. But given the nation's recent forced reckoning with how race continues to shape almost every feature of American life, she believes it's time to tell a more complicated story. Now is the time to contend with the nation's past to better understand its present.

Evans said that a few days after that demand, Granger read five General Orders issued by the federal government. No. 3 caused a bit of a stir.

"The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free," it began.

Some of the Black men who minutes before had been enslaved threw their hats in the air, and women danced.

The standard accounts of Juneteenth begin with Granger's reading General Order No. 3 for reasons unstated. Slaves were free. There was much merriment. And there have been annual cookouts, concerts and prayer services in the more than century and a half since then to commemorate the date. The end.

In reality, a few days after Granger's announcement — read three times at different locations around the city — the local paper published all five orders, said Jami Durham, historian for property research and cultural history for the Galveston Historical Foundation. That and word of mouth quickly spread the news around the state.

By the next week, newspaper men interviewed white Galveston men who owned the banks, insurance companies, warehouses and shipping outfits that had helped make cotton, rice and sugar plantations the core of the region's economy. They complained about their untenable position. Their free labor had, in a flash, disappeared. And growers around the state had crops that would have to be harvested in a few months. What were they to do? The Civil War had already brought a blockade and an intense economic shutdown to the island, Durham said. After June 19, 1865, many of the island's once-enslaved, especially working-age, adults left for nearby commercial centers like Houston and New Orleans. Some former slave owners complained that they had been left with those too young and too old to work.

"Much like then, this moment, the one we live in now, this is a big moment of reckoning," said Kenneth C. Davis, a historian and author of "Don't Know Much About History." As Davis spoke, news broke that the company that produces Aunt Jemima products would eliminate the logo and the name because of their connection to racial stereotypes rooted in slavery.

"Most major change in this country has not come from the top down but the bottom up," he said. "The environmental movement, the anti-war movement, women's rights, gay rights, civil rights. These are broad-based social movements that came from the ground up, often led by very young people. I think that is what we are seeing, as well, with the Black Lives Matter movement right now."

Davis considers the often-repeated idea that history operates on a continuous loop too simplistic. But there are, he said, repeated themes.

In July 1863, about seven months after the Emancipation Proclamation had freed slaves in rebel states, white New Yorkers, mostly Irish immigrants, rioted in protest of the Union Army draft. Many objected to fighting the war to end slavery because they believed freed slaves would compete with them for jobs. But those who rioted in New York were, in many ways, only making the same claims on the economic and political value of whiteness that those who founded the country did before them. There were and are entire industries in which people of color remain scarce.

Inequality and injustice were built in from the beginning, Davis said.

"I call it the great American contradiction. A nation conceived in liberty was born in shackles."

"Four of the first five presidents were Virginia slaveholders," said Davis, who also wrote the book "In the Shadow of Liberty." "Five of the first seven presidents are slaveholders for 40 of the nation's first 48 years. And at the same time, every chief justice of the Supreme Court was a slaveholder. Every House speaker in that period was a slaveholder. ... I call it the great American contradiction. A nation conceived in liberty was born in shackles."

And those not born into chattel slavery — or constrained by the various forms of Jim Crow policy implemented all over the country in the decades after 1865 — directly benefited from their more complete freedom. That's true when it comes to jobs, when it comes to housing, when it comes to schools, when it comes to public policy, Davis said. When the country erupted in riots in the late 1960s, the official government analysis of the causes boiled down to this: America was "moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal."

More recently, after a white police officer knelt on the neck of George Floyd until he died, protests erupted across the country and in multiple foreign cities. President Donald Trump then announced plans to hold a campaign rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the site of the nation's worst racial massacre, on Juneteenth.

Full coverage of George Floyd's death and protests around the country

Both events — along with the terror unleashed by a global pandemic — drew widespread attention to policing, to what seemed like official disregard for Black suffering and persistent racial inequality, Davis said. The "starburst" of interest in Juneteenth is, in some ways, an expression of that, he added.

Celebrations of the holiday waned during the height of the civil rights movement before interest renewed in the 1970s and the 1980s, said Tommie Boudreaux, a lifelong Galveston resident who is chair of the Galveston Historical Foundation's African American Heritage Committee.

Boudreaux, who is a B.O.I., the local term for someone born on the island, and another African American Heritage Committee member will livestream a lecture Friday about Black life in Galveston.

As a retired middle school principal, she pointed to the cruel irony of enhanced interest in Juneteenth when there is decreased ability to safely provide public programming.

"People are talking, really thinking and talking, about these things, the issues at the heart of Juneteenth, that perhaps have not done so before," Boudreaux said.