Juneteenth Remarks from Tsione Wolde-Michael

On June 17, 2014, the East Side Freedom Library hosted a “Freedom Reception” which commemorated the holiday of Juneteenth, marking the end of slavery in 1865.  Tsione Wolde-Michael, Macalester graduate; intern in Public History at the Smithsonian Museum of National History and graduate student in History at Harvard University. Tsione provided this historical context for the holiday of Juneteenth:

Juneteenth is truly one of the most important events in our nation’s history. On “Freedom’s Eve” or the eve of January 1, 1863 the first Watch Night services took place. On that night, African American slaves and free blacks gathered in churches and private homes all across the nation awaiting news that the Emancipation Proclamation had become law.

At the stroke of midnight, prayers were answered as all slaves in the Confederate States were declared legally free. But not everyone in confederate territory would immediately have freedom. Even though the Emancipation Proclamation was declared in 1863, the news would not reach the westernmost confederate state of Texas until much later.

But on June 19, 1865 that changed, when enslaved African Americans in Galveston Bay, TX were notified by the arrival of some 2,000 Union troops that they, along with the more than 250,000 other enslaved black people in the state, were free by executive order.

What Juneteenth (as that day was called by the freed slaves in Texas) really marks then, is our country’s second independence day. And though it has been long celebrated among the African American community it is a history that was suppressed until recently, and it is one that I think is particularly appropriate to remember as we celebrate the opening of this space today.

The post-emancipation period known as Reconstruction (1865-1877) marked an era of great hope, uncertainty, and struggle for the nation as a whole. Formerly enslaved people immediately sought to reunify families, establish schools, run for political office, push radical legislation and even sue slaveholders for compensation. And this is incredible! It is not even one generation out of enslavement that people are so empowered to try to completely transform their lives.

And in this vein, I think discussing the spirit of Juneteenth today and in this space couldn’t be more appropriate. It is a historical legacy that shows the value of deep hope and urgent organizing and political movement in uncertain times. I see the East Side Freedom Library as an exciting community space where that spirit can continue. Where suppressed histories like this one can surface, and new stories with equal urgency can be told.