Juneteenth: A Day of Celebration & Confliction
Juneteenth marks the end of slavery for African Americans on June 19, 1865. This holiday is a time for both celebration and reflection, an opportunity to look back at our past as a country, to assess where we are in the present and to imagine a new future.
To commemorate the end of slavery during this historic time, we put together a brief history of Juneteenth, as well as a wealth of resources about systemic racism and how it continues to operate in America today.
Why We Celebrate Juneteenth
The Emancipation Proclamation was issued on January 1, 1863, however, it would be over two years before all enslaved Africans were free.
On January 31,1865, Congress adopted a new constitutional amendment prohibiting slavery. But it wasn’t until several months later, on June 19, that Major General Gordon Granger and a band of Union soldiers would arrive in Galveston, Texas, with news that the Civil War had ended, bringing people a form of freedom. Freedom from chains.
By the time slaves were freed on that first Juneteenth in 1865, it had been 246 years since the first ship with enslaved Africans arrived in Jamestown, Virginia, from West Africa in 1619. In that time, generations of people lived and died, were tortured, stripped of language and bred like animals. Slavery was the fabric of our economy and our culture. Slave-backed mortgage bonds fueled the economy. Meanwhile, the combined value of enslaved workers was more than that of all the railroads and factories in the United States. The corporations that profited from the enslavement of African Americans still exist today. Many African Americans still carry the last name of slave owners. This is the legacy of slavery in America.
Today, we celebrate Juneteenth to remember the lives lost and the pain endured under slavery, but also to acknowledge this major step toward freedom.
In many ways, it feels like we still have a long way to go before we are truly free and no longer face oppression. This is especially true now as protests continue, and many feel frustration and anger about the killing of unarmed Black men and women at the hands of law enforcement.
We are generations removed, but the impact of slavery and systemic oppression are still prevalent today. It is important to recognize that on this day, physical chains were broken, but systemic racism and symbols continue.
Before writing this blog post, I thought carefully about what I could add to the discussion. I don't speak for everyone who is Black — because we are not monolithic — but I do support everyone that is Black. (Thanks to my wife for helping me figure out exactly what I wanted to say in the previous sentence.) So I tried to include some of the best work and articles that Black people and allies have written and researched, on various topics in relations to how systemic oppression exists in our society today.
Below are some resources for education and reflection on this Juneteenth and beyond.
“Systems of oppression haven’t been abolished, they are constantly redesigned.”
-Slow Factory Foundation via Instagram
Resources for Learning More About Systemic Racism
What Is Systemic Racism?
If you want to understand how racism functions in America today, you need to look at systemic racism. This video provides an explanation of systemic racism and the factors outlined below affect outcomes for Black people in America.
Housing Discrimination and Gentrification
In 1968, the Fair Housing Act “prohibited discrimination concerning the sale, rental and financing of housing based on race, religion, national origin or sex.” However, discrimination based on those characteristics still exist today.
The resources below delve more into issues regarding housing and gentrification, and especially their affect on Atlanta.
- “How Black Americans See Discrimination,” Gene Demby, NPR.
- “The results even surprised some of the actors of color; they felt they had been treated politely — even warmly — by the very real estate agents who told them they had no properties available to show them, but who then told the white actors something different.”
- “What Does a Traffic Jam in Atlanta Have to Do with Segregation? Quite a Lot,” Kevin M. Kruse, The New York Times.
- “As in most American cities in the decades after the Second World War, the new highways in Atlanta — local expressways at first, then Interstates — were steered along routes that bulldozed “blighted” neighborhoods that housed its poorest residents, almost always racial minorities.”
- “How to Stop Gentrification,” Colin Kinniburgh, The New Republic.
- “The developers couldn’t have done it without government support, from the federal to the state to the city level.”
- “Atlanta Is Rapidly Gentrifying. Here’s Where,” Jonathan Raymond, 11 Alive.
- “All you have to do is walk the BeltLine to see how areas from the Old Fourth Ward to the West End have been transformed by chic restaurants, boutique shops and high-end housing developments.
- “Nowhere for People to Go: Who Will Survive the Gentrification of Atlanta?” Jamiles Lartey, The Guardian.
- “Atlanta was the first US city to build public housing – and the first to knock it all down. Now, with rampant property speculation in Black working-class areas, longtime residents are being priced out – and advocates say the racial dynamics are unsettling.”
- “Twenty Point Plan to Depopulate Black Atlanta,” Robert D. Bullard, Reimagine.
- “The 2010 census revealed a significant exodus of blacks (29,746) out of Atlanta city over the previous decade. At the same time, the number of blacks in the metro Atlanta area grew by 490,982 — a 40 percent increase. The lion’s share of blacks who migrated to metro Atlanta settled in the suburbs — not the city.”
- “Atlanta Blacks Losing in Home Loan Scramble: Banks favor white areas by 5-1 margin,” Bill Dedman, from the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Color of Money” published in the AJC, 1988.
- “Among stable neighborhoods of the same income, white neighborhoods always received the most bank loans per 1,000 single-family homes. Integrated neighborhoods always received fewer. Black neighborhoods -- including the mayor's neighborhood -- always received the fewest.”
In 1954, the Supreme Court ruled that segregated schools were unconstitutional in Brown versus the Board of Education. Even still, it wasn’t until the sixties that many colleges were finally desegregated, including UGA in 1961. My mother was in college during these years. I am one generation removed from not having access to schools because of the color of my skin.
Disparities in our education system continue to disproportionately affect people of color. According to one 2016 study, a Black student with the same scores as a white student is only half as likely to be placed in a gifted program.
These resources discuss issues in education that impact Black youth today.
- “How Do We Get Black Students in the Picture and in Computer Majors?” Maureen Downey, The AJC.
- In Atlanta, “students do not have access to programs that will allow them access to STEM fields. In Atlanta Public Schools, 80 percent of the juniors and seniors are black — approximately 4,150 students. Only two out of eleven high schools offer advanced placement computer science courses.”
- “Why Do Fewer Black Students Get Identified As Gifted?” Jason A. Grissom, The Conversation.
- “Black students assigned to a white classroom teacher are much less likely to be assigned to gifted programs than those assigned to a black teacher.”
Medical Experiments on Black Bodies
It is common knowledge that in the early 1900s, a majority of white people felt superior to Black people. But many don’t know about the medical experiments historically conducted on African Americans.
These articles detail inhumane health experiments conducted on Black people in the last century.
- “40 Years of Human Experimentation in America: The Tuskegee Study” Ada McVean, McGill.
- “In 1932, 600 African American men from Macon County, Alabama were enlisted to partake in a scientific experiment on syphilis. In what would become known as the infamous 40-year “Tuskegee Study", the goal was to observe untreated syphilis in black populations. The subjects were unaware of the experiment and were told instead that the treatments they were receiving were for bad blood. Many did not receive any treatment at all.”
- “A Generation of Bad Blood,” Vann R. Newkirk II, The Atlantic.
- “Public Health Service officials followed 600 rural black men in Alabama with syphilis over the course of their lives, refusing to tell patients their diagnosis, refusing to treat them for the debilitating disease, and actively denying some of them treatment.”
- “The Surgeon Who Experimented on Slaves,” Sarah Zhang, The Atlantic.
- “The man whose name appears in medical textbooks, whose likeness is memorialized in statues, is J. Marion Sims. Celebrated as the “father of modern gynecology,” Sims practiced the surgical techniques that made him famous on enslaved women: Lucy, Anarcha, Betsey, and the unknown others. He performed 30 surgeries on Anarcha alone, all without anesthesia, as it was not yet widespread. He also invented the modern speculum, and the Sims’s position for vaginal exams, both of which he first used on these women.”
The Black Lives Matter movement has brought unprecedented attention to the violent repression of African Americans by law enforcement. Today, Black Americans are two and a half times more likely to be killed by police than white Americans.
- “What Is Systemic Racism?” Race Forward.
- “Did you know that over 40% of drug arrests are not for selling any drugs but just for possession of marijuana? And that White and Black Americans are about equally likely to use marijuana, but Blacks are 3.7 more likely to be arrested for it? And that even if they don't get convicted of a crime that arrest can stay on their record and affect their chances at good jobs, housing and bank loans for the rest of their lives?”
- “Police Killed More than 100 Unarmed Black People in 2015,” Mapping Police Violence.
- “Only 13 of the 104 cases in 2015 where an unarmed black person was killed by police resulted in officer(s) being charged with a crime. 4 of these cases have ended in a mistrial or charges against the officer(s) being dropped and 4 cases are still awaiting trial or have a trial underway. Only 4 cases (Matthew Ajibade, Eric Harris, Paterson Brown Jr., and William Chapman) have resulted in convictions of officers involved, with a fifth case (Walter Scott) resulting in the officer pleading guilty.”
- “Study: People see black men as larger and more threatening than similarly sized white men,” German Lopez, Vox.
- “These stereotypes have serious consequences if they alter people’s perceptions of black and white men. Consider the 2014 Cleveland police shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice: After he was killed, the officers involved reported that they thought Rice was 20. While it’s impossible to get into these cops’ heads to see what they were thinking, it’s possible they genuinely believed Rice was older because they saw Rice as bigger than he really was. This series of studies certainly suggest that’s a possibility.”
The Way Forward
As I assembled this list of required reading, a quote came to mind:
“It’s alright to tell a man to lift himself by his own bootstraps, but it is a cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps.”
-Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
This quote comes from a Sunday sermon given just four days before his assassination, called “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution.” In it, Martin Luther King spoke about the Emancipation Proclamation — about how slaves had been freed, but they had not been given any land or resources to begin their new lives of “freedom.” Because of racist policies and systemic discrimination, this lack of resources continued to affect African Americans hundreds of years later, when MLK delivered this speech — and it still continues today.
If we are to see a future where we are all truly free, we must begin by correcting the unequal policies and systemic injustices that give Black people an unfair start. This Juneteenth, that future of fully realized freedom is what I’ll be thinking of.