In one of Frederick Douglass’ most memorable speeches he says, “What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July?” We celebrate Independence Day every July 4th to mark the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. It is a day full of American pride and gives us an opportunity to pay our respects to those who fought for our independence from Britain. The reality that Douglas brought up is that the 4th of July does not hold the same meaning and pride for American slaves because they weren’t free themselves.
Emancipation Took Years
Freedom for slaves came in waves. One of the first waves came January 1, 1863 when Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation and freed the slaves in southern rebel states. Juneteenth (also known as Emancipation Day and African-American Freedom Day) marks the day over 2 years later on June 19, 1865 when word of the emancipation reached slaves in Galveston, Texas. Since then, the holiday has spread, from Texas, throughout the United States and serves as a time for African-Americans to come together and celebrate their independence and culture.
Juneteenth is often marked by festivals, parades, community service, cookouts, and many other forms of Black joy. The atmosphere of Juneteenth is amazing to witness and is a constant reminder of how Black people have used joy as a form of resistance even in the shadows of slavery. It marks emancipation and freedom and the beginnings of Reconstruction that helped move the community forward, even in the face of growing Jim Crow laws.
Lack of Protection After Slavery Abolition Led to New and Long-Lasting Forms of Discrimination
In addition to it being a time of celebration, Juneteenth is a time to reflect on the ways that the effects of slavery have continued since the Emancipation Proclamation and even the ratification of the 13th Amendment. Slavery was abolished without providing protection for the rights of newly freed slaves, meaning states were free to create their own systems to prevent African-Americans and their descendants from becoming truly liberated. Slavery was abolished, but racism led to Black Codes and Jim Crow laws that were aimed at preventing Black people from prospering and gaining equality. These were direct responses to the passages of the Reconstruction amendments (the 13th, 14th, and 15th) that together abolished slavery, granted citizenship and equal protection to everybody born or naturalized in the United States, and secured the right to vote for Black men. As a result, some of the Black Codes required Black people to get yearly work permits or risk punishments including arrest or forced labor. They also threatened the right to vote through poll taxes, intimidation tactics, and literacy tests that were intentionally made to bar Black men from being able to safely exercise their right to vote. The Codes varied by state and directly challenged the progress that African-Americans had made with home ownership, access to education, and reclaiming their right to pursue the lives that they wanted to live.
Black Liberation and Environmental Justice
Juneteenth marks the shift from fighting for the freedom of slaves to fighting for the liberation of all Black people. The fight for Black liberation, access to a healthy outdoors, and environmental justice have always been connected. The placement of hazardous waste sites and pollution in Black neighborhoods is a direct result of structural racism and historical housing discrimination. The same systems that allowed Jim Crow laws in the south also allowed the redlining practices that pushed Black families into industrial, urban centers by denying mortgages in the growing, and predominately white, suburbs. The after effects of these redlining practices can be found at the core of many environmental justice issues relating to access to important resources and proximity to harmful facilities. Liberation for environmental justice communities would mean updated and greener infrastructure to make neighborhoods safer. It would mean investments in schools and community centers to ensure the success of underserved communities. Most importantly, it would mean a more aggressive strategy to address legacy toxins and to provide neighborhoods a say in what industries are located near their homes.
Every year Juneteenth reminds us that there is always work to be done to ensure the liberation of Black folks in the USA. It allows us to celebrate those who have fought for our right to live and experience love and joy and motivates us to continue to demand liberation for the communities still struggling with the legacies of slavery.
Marissa McClenton is a Delaware Nature Society Advocacy Team member for grassroots organizing, clean water, and environmental justice.