Juneteenth: A Day to Remember
Associate General Minister
This week, for only the second time in history, we honored Juneteenth as a federal holiday. Although not all businesses offered employees an extra day off of work, I am grateful for the time of reflection the national setting afforded staff and for the wonderful virtual service of remembrance led by Rev. Dr. Velda Love, our minister for racial justice. In yet another season of opposition to truth telling in pulpits, politics, and the public square, it is good to recall for some and educate others about this nation’s love affair with chattel slavery and its economic impact.
The Civil War ended in the summer of 1865 and the Confederacy lost—despite what might be suggested by the proliferation of Confederate flags and monuments still raised in this nation. As a result of this defeat, enslaved people in Texas were officially notified by general order, on June 19, 1865, of the freedoms afforded them through the Emancipation Proclamation two and one-half years earlier. It is inaccurate to say the enslaved had no knowledge of their freedom. There were sophisticated channels of communication between African descendent people and they most certainly would have heard slave owners lamenting the executive order. Juneteenth most accurately marks the day Texas was compelled to obey the law, although they encouraged the formerly enslaved to remain on plantations and continue to work.
Slavery was replaced with sharecropping and sharecropping with Jim Crow laws that used every available tool to not only maintain racial segregation but to also maintain economic oppression and exploitation. A continuation of this injustice may be seen in the mass incarceration of African descendant people who, in spite of representing only 12% of our population, represent 38% of our prison population, which amounts to an incarceration rate for Black people that is five times higher than that of White people.
This legacy of racial oppression in the US is not only our racial history—it is our economic history, which has a global impact. Just two streets away from the current site of the New York Stock Exchange, African descendant men, women, and children were bought and sold. The Dutch used slave labor to build the wall after which Wall Street is named. Slavery thrived under colonial rule. British and Dutch settlers relied on enslaved people to help establish farms and build the new towns and cities that would eventually become the United States, and the financial industry became the repository for this ill-gotten gain.
Whether states or industries actually owned people as property does not negate the fact that every US institution benefitted from the enslavement of African descendant people. If there is such a thing as pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps, it must be acknowledged that generationally enslaved people of African descent are the reason such boots are available.
In recent years, some US banks have issued apologies for the role they played in promoting slavery. In 2005, JP Morgan Chase admitted that two of its subsidiaries accepted enslaved people as collateral for loans, and they are not alone. The predecessors of many of our largest banking institutions have similar hidden histories, as do our secular and religious institutions. Every major institution in the United States is a beneficiary of chattel slavery. Generational wealth in this country sprouts from the roots of generational enslavement. Juneteenth is a reminder that restitution is a necessary component of freedom, and our work is yet undone. May we live into a more perfect union with courage and resolve.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Traci Blackmon is Associate General Minister, Justice and Local Church Ministries for the United Church of Christ.
The United Church of Christ has more than 5,000 churches throughout the United States. Rooted in the Christian traditions of congregational governance and covenantal relationships, each UCC setting speaks only for itself and not on behalf of every UCC congregation. UCC members and churches are free to differ on important social issues, even as the UCC remains principally committed to unity in the midst of our diversity.