Photos: Wikimedia Commons\Screenshot\Michigan State Univ\Twitter
On June 19, 1865, after white Southerners had extended the enslavement of countless Black people by concealing the Civil War’s end for more than two months, Union troops arrived in Texas. For the first time, local Black residents learned that the Confederacy had lost the war and that they were free under the Emancipation Proclamation.
Although President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation had theoretically freed enslaved Black people in Confederate territories when it was issued in 1863, that declaration was largely unenforceable in locations that remained under Confederate control. The Proclamation had almost no effect in Texas and other Confederate states that rejected the freedom of enslaved people—especially on plantations that had little contact with Union forces.
Despite the limits of the Proclamation’s reach during war-time, the Confederate Army’s surrender on April 9, 1865, should have immediately freed enslaved Black people in all states and territories where the Proclamation applied. The Proclamation had exempted the so-called “border states” of Maryland, Delaware, Kentucky, and Missouri, so even Union victory did not affect slavery in those areas.
Where Confederate defeat did mean emancipation, white Southerners committed to white supremacy and the continued exploitation of enslaved Black people used violence, misinformation, and threats to keep Black people in bondage. Union troops’ arrival in Texas on June 19, 1865, brought news of freedom to Black men, women, and children who had waited far too long. That date came to be known as “Juneteenth” in the African American community, and has for generations remained a day of remembrance, joyous celebration, and hope: remembrance of the hardships and pain of enslavement; joyous celebration of our survival; and hope for the opportunity and peace that freedom ought to bring.
Juneteenth does not denote a struggle completed or a finish line reached. Black Americans faced many threats to their liberty and their lives in the years after the Civil War, and face continued injustice still.
Slavery did not become illegal throughout the entire U.S. until ratification of the 13th Amendment on December 6, 1865—though it’s important to note that the amendment’s language, still in force today, created an exception authorizing involuntary servitude “as punishment for crime.” Even after the 13th Amendment became national law, many Southern states including Kentucky and Delaware resisted ratifying the provision for decades. Mississippi, the last state to do so, refused to pass ratification legislation until 1995, and didn’t formally file the passage until 2013.
Black Americans quickly learned that freedom’s potential, celebrated with such hope on Juneteenth, would take more than one law or one day to fulfill. Though the end of the Civil War brought the liberation of formerly enslaved people and drastically altered the political and social landscape of the nation, what followed emancipation would determine whether the U.S. would seize or waste this opportunity to lay a new foundational commitment to true liberty and equality while remedying the harmful and unjust legacies enslavement left behind. The Reconstruction period emerged to answer that question.
Though Reconstruction began with promise and marked achievements, the era proved to be short-lived, dangerous, and deadly.
As documented in EJI’s report, Reconstruction in America, at least 2,000 African Americans were victims of racial terror lynching during the 12-year period from 1865-1876. As Reconstruction-era policies enforced Black Americans’ new rights of citizenship and protections from enslavement, white Americans formed counter-movements that sought to restore white supremacy using racial violence and political discrimination. Intent on terrorizing Black communities into submission and fear, white mobs were determined to ensure that emancipation would not bring Black people political participation, social equality, or economic independence.
Faced with defeat in the Civil War and upheaval of the oppressive racial hierarchy, white Southerners waged a campaign of violence targeting African Americans across the South that reached epidemic proportions in the summer of 1865 and continued largely unchecked throughout the first half of the 20th century.
In 1877, just 12 years after the abolition of American chattel slavery and as part of a political compromise, the U.S. government abandoned its promise to protect newly emancipated Black people and withdrew federal troops from the South. This decision marked the end of Reconstruction and the brief period of multiracial democracy it had represented. Instead, Black men, women, and children were left vulnerable to racial terror and disenfranchisement that would last for generations. From 1877 to 1950, at least 4,400 African Americans were victims of racial terror lynchings while the nation’s legal system turned a blind eye, allowing white lynch mobs to kill with impunity.
Today, more than 150 years after the enactment of the 13th Amendment, very little has been done to address the legacy of slavery and its continued legacies visible in contemporary inequality and injustice. Though the enslavement of Black people created wealth, opportunity, and prosperity for millions of white Americans and gave birth to the American economy, its impact is largely obscured and ignored.
Slavery in America traumatized and devastated millions of people and created false narratives of racial difference that still persist today. These narratives, including the ideology of white supremacy, lasted well beyond slavery and fueled decades of racial terror, segregation, mass incarceration, and inequality.
As an opportunity for national reflection, Juneteenth invites us all to confront the promises of liberty and justice that remain largely unfulfilled in this nation. Through this reflection, we can recognize and commit to addressing the legacies of racial injustice present in our lives today. Strengthening our understanding of racial history empowers us to create a healthier discourse about race in America and foster an era of truth and justice.
EJI is persuaded that the hope of racial justice in America will be shaped not by the fear and resistance of those who doubt its importance, but by the dedicated commitment and action of those who believe in the possibility of racial justice.