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Why Juneteenth Needs to be a National Holiday

June 19, 1865, marks the day when news of emancipation and the Civil War's end finally reached the last group of slaves in America. It should be treated with the same respect we give Independence Day.

by Chase Madar
Jun 19 2015, 3:55pm

Print via Library of Congress

Looting and property damage have gotten a lot of bad press, but me, I refuse to talk trash about the Boston Tea Party. Taxation without representation may not be the worst injustice in world history, but it's a bad thing, and the American colonists who dressed up like natives and looted those merchant ships struck a blow, in their street-theater way, for progress.

But if you want a more potent image of American freedom, it's the time in 1862 that a black slave named Robert Smalls stole a Confederate steamship from Charleston, South Carolina, harbor and piloted it straight into Union territory. Or think about any and all of the 180,000 African American soldiers who fought on the Union side to crush the slave power. That is what real freedom and independence look like.

And that is why today, Juneteenth, needs to be a national holiday.

What is this Juneteenth, and when is it? June 19, 1865, marks the day when news of emancipation and the Civil War's end finally reached America's last group of slaves, in Galveston, Texas, more than two months after the Confederacy's unconditional surrender. In black America, it's been commemorated for years, and it's even a half-assed "staffing holiday" in some states. But it needs to be made a full-on national holiday.

There was an irreconcilable clash between the colonists' war of independence and the freedom of African Americans.

Juneteenth honors the 3,400 slaves who escaped slavery in Virginia and Maryland during the War of 1812 to join the British forces anchored in the Chesapeake.

Juneteenth is for the slave rebels aboard the San Juan Nepomuceno, who broke free of their bonds in the south Atlantic and successfully forced the ship to take them back to Africa—"perhaps the greatest escape in the history of New World slavery," according to historian Greg Grandin.

Juneteenth is for the slaves who answered colonial Governor Lord Dunmore's 1775 promise of emancipation by fleeing their masters and fighting on the side of the British crown against the colonists in the War of Independence—an exodus of between 5,000 and 100,000 African Americans, according to historian Alan Gilbert.

In fact—and not to be rude—but in the history of North American freedom, June 19 is a more significant date than the Fourth of July.

Why compare the two celebrations like that? In some ways, 6/19 and 7/4 are in sweet harmony. As Edward Countryman points out in his handy overview of the American Revolution, the War of Independence was, at least in some places, deeply intermingled with the dismantling of slavery, which was abolished in Vermont in 1777, in Pennsylvania in 1780, and in Massachusetts in 1783. There were black troops fighting for American independence—though not nearly as many as fought for their own freedom on the side of the crown.

There's just no way around it: There was an irreconcilable clash between the colonists' war of independence and the freedom of African Americans. Historian Gerald Horne even casts the colonists' secession as a counterrevolution against the erratic progress of the British Empire to limit slavery. In Brooklyn, New York's own piece of the Deep South that was roughly one-third slaves, the British army liberated slaves and stationed them in their former masters' houses. Which side was the revolutionary one?

The hypocritical contradiction of the pro-slavery colonists fighting for their own freedom was not lost on everyone in the late 18th century. "How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?" asked Samuel Johnson from London. This theme was reprised a few years ago by public intellectual Chris Rock on Twitter ("Happy white peoples independence day the slaves weren't free but I'm sure they enjoyed fireworks"). Rock caught a lot of screaming internet outrage, but he wasn't wrong. As Frederick Douglass asked in a speech that still moves, despite its purple, 19th-century rhetorical styling, "What, to the American slave, is your Fourth of July?" (Answer: "To drag a man in fetters into the grand illuminated temple of liberty, and call upon him to join you in joyous anthems, were inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony.")

Let's face it: The American War of Independence was not the universal fight for freedom our oompah-band pols and pundits like to say it is. Fifty years ago, when the colonial overlords of Rhodesia tried to secede from the British empire as a white-supremacist republic, their avowed (and to us, embarrassing) inspiration was Jefferson's Declaration of Independence.

We need to face our history, which is not all good nor all bad. The public commemoration of black history has made giant strides in the past 50 years. But the country still lags disastrously in the public commemoration of slavery and emancipation. That the Colfax Massacre—probably the largest act of white-supremacist terror during post–Civil War Reconstruction, slaughtering as many as 150 black Americans—is commemorated with this racist, piss-poor plaque is a national disgrace. That the nation's biggest slave port, Charleston, doesn't have a major monument is an anti-historical scandal—one made all the more glaring by this week's violent atrocity there at an historic black church.

That there is still no (completed) museum devoted to slavery on the Mall in Washington is an insult. All of this is black history, sure, but it's much more than a niche interest: You really can't understand the economic, social, and political history of the modern world without thorough knowledge of New World slavery. There isn't a mainstream economic historian to be found who would deny that profits from slave labor provided the capital to industrialize the young nation—economic benefits that accrued mostly in the North.

Nearly all Americans, in fact nearly all humans, are descendants of peons of some kind.

Mind you, I'm not gunning for Dolezal extensions with this little column, nor am I trying to be "a good white ally," a term that manages to be both cringing and grandiose.

Mainly I write this out of self-interest, as the national celebration of Juneteenth would be a great thing for non-black Americans too, even apart from the sad fact that we Americans don't get enough federal holidays compared with other Western nations. Every year around the Fourth of July, there is an outpouring of public adulation for the Northern merchant elite and Southern plantation owners who signed the Declaration of Independence and their timeless wisdom. As we are a nation of super-winners, we naturally identify with this colonial-era 1 percent. But it might behoove us to gush about the 13 colonies' super elite a little bit less and try to identify a bit more with all the rebellious slaves, whose moral and political example is, in my view, more worthy of emulation.

Despite growing economic insecurity, we remain a nation full of what one family in McKinney, Texas—the town with that racist, ridiculous swimming-pool cop incidentdescribed to BuzzFeed News as "30,000-a-year millionaires." "They act like they have this grand, luxurious life, and they're probably just moving from credit card to credit card.... It's almost as if they feel entitled."

But the fact is that nearly all Americans, in fact nearly all humans, are descendants of peons of some kind: Sicilian viddani, Polish chłopi, Korean nongbu, Scottish highlanders ethnically cleansed by the lairds to make room for lucrative sheep pastures, Mexican campesinos, the English vagrants and prisoners transported to the American colonies as punishment. There is no doubt that the harshness of New World slavery was extreme. But although American slavery is horrifically unique, it is not incomparable.

To observe Juneteenth—today marks its 150th anniversary—is to celebrate resilience. It is isn't just about what black Americans have resisted and rebelled against, even though the escaped slaves who enlisted with the British and helped burn down the White House in 1814 make one hell of a compelling story. It's about what the country is building together in the ongoing, oft-delayed Reconstruction that has always been an act of creation.

Chase Madar is the author of The Passion of [Chelsea] Manning: The Story behind the Wikileaks Whistleblower. Follow him on Twitter.