There are few if any holidays more significant than Juneteenth. This day, of course, commemorates the date on which the abolition of slavery was finally announced in Texas—the most geographically-isolated state covered by the Emancipation Proclamation. When Union troops finally arrived there on June 19, 1865, freedom, at long last, was realized in the farthest reaches of the country.
By the time of the Civil War, the United States was the biggest slave nation in the western hemisphere—two-thirds of our hemisphere’s slave population was concentrated in the American South. Juneteenth’s remembrance of the final abolition of chattel slavery in the U.S. is a time of celebration, pride for the resistance of our ancestors, and reflection on the incalculable suffering endured for centuries by millions of Black people.
This year, as we mark Juneteenth as a federally-recognized holiday for just the third time, the legacy and repercussions of slavery can be seen all around us. Pervasive white supremacy, economic disenfranchisement, health and educational disparities, and grave imbalances in political power are direct results of our nation’s original sins. To overcome these barriers, all Americans must be taught this history in its full and often gruesome complexity.
Yet what we are witnessing across the country is the very opposite—a concerted effort by those in power to rewrite the past and obfuscate how racism underpins social, economic, and environmental inequities. This is perhaps most visible in the appalling attempts, empowered by far-right governors in places like Florida, Texas, and my home state of Virginia, to censor or remove the discussion of race (and other topics such as gender and LGBTQ+ studies) in our school systems. The takeover of school boards by right-wing zealots masquerading as “parental rights advocates” has led to the resurgence of book banning (and, in some cases, book burnings) in districts across the country—depriving students of the right to information and diverse viewpoints. This includes many of the most celebrated Black authors such as Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, Alice Walker, and others whose books are being taken off school libraries’ shelves.
The attacks against “wokeness” in our schools have clearly been manufactured as the newest culture war distraction ahead of upcoming elections, to give the Republican Party the relevance it needs at a time when it completely lacks a coherent governing agenda. But an even more sinister motive is to dismantle public education, privatize learning, and prevent an entire generation of Americans from understanding history through the eyes of the oppressed: racial minorities, women, the LGBTQ+ community, immigrants, and the working class at large.
It is necessary to teach our children how to think critically, challenge power, and understand the full complexity of society to give them the tools to be leaders and change-makers.
In 1955, in Montgomery, Alabama, a 15-year-old Black girl named Claudette Colvin refused to give up her seat on a bus after being ordered to do so by the driver. In a recent re-telling of the incident, she said, “It felt as if Harriet Tubman’s hand was pushing me down on the one shoulder, and Sojourner Truth’s hand was pushing me down on the other. Learning about those two women gave me the courage to remain seated that day.” Ms. Colvin was arrested for her act of defiance, which preceded Rosa Parks’ by two years. Only in recent years has her story begun to receive the national recognition it deserves.
It was her knowledge of history which gave Ms. Colvin, by her own account, the power to take a stand against segregation. This Juneteenth, we must redouble our commitment to preserving our history and fighting all attempts to enforce ignorance through book bans or any other right-wing machinations. Our Black history is American history, and the teaching of how we and other marginalized groups have persevered over the centuries is crucial to building a more perfect union.
George Gresham is President of 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East, the largest union of healthcare workers in the nation.