Commentary: Juneteenth an opportunity to reflect on racial divides
Juneteenth marks the day -- June 19, 1865 -- slaves in Texas were freed in the last Confederate outpost of the Civil War. Since then, the African American experience has been fraught with challenge. (Photo Credit: T. Anthony Bell) VIEW ORIGINAL

FORT LEE, Va. – Juneteenth, our newest national holiday, recognizes the euphoric moment in America’s history when nearly 250 years of slavery ended.

It happened on June 19, 1865. Union Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger and his troops arrived in Galveston, Texas, to oversee the freeing of slaves at the last Confederate outpost of the Civil War. Granger stood before the people and read from General Order No. 3, succinctly stating, “The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free.”

Over the many decades that followed, the Black community continued to embrace the significance of Juneteenth – also called Jubilee or Emancipation Day. The fervor grew during the last 30 years as America became more conscious of the need to make reparations for the wrongs of its past. Elected leaders in Washington, D.C., signed Juneteenth into law last year as the 11th nationally recognized federal holiday, viewing it as an essential step toward bridging racial divides across the country.

While celebrating or at least pondering the significance of Juneteenth this year, understand it was not the day slavery literally ended. It legally continued in Delaware, Kentucky and parts of New Jersey until December 6, 1865, the date when passage of the 13th Amendment officially abolished it.

Furthermore, those in Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma) continued the practice of slavery well into 1866. Still further, discriminatory post-war laws gave new life to sharecropping, birthed convict leasing and other practices designed to fill the lucrative voids of chattel slavery.

That makes Juneteenth a symbolic occasion, asterisked by the corroboration that freedom – with its companions of justice and equality – has been for African-Americans a long, meandering and arduous uphill struggle.

The journey began in 1619 not far from here in what is now Fort Monroe, a former Army base perched on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay just south of Hampton. That’s where 20-or-so captive Africans first stepped onto land that would eventually become the United States. Slavery became a powerful economic engine supporting the country’s growth and development. Disagreement over the atrocities associated with human ownership, though, would eventually lead to the Civil War.

Those of African descent participated greatly in the cause to secure their freedom. One could only imagine the elation felt by black Soldiers and the newly liberated as they embarked upon freedom. Their minds may have been flooded with possibility, and their hearts likely pounded in anticipation of being able to be and do without restraint.

No doubt, it was a reason to celebrate.

The jubilation, however, would eventually descend into the stark reality African-American freedom was not commensurate with that of their former captors, and racial prejudice could not be simply wiped away with ink on paper.

Even so, African-Americans strove to better their lives amidst waves of racial violence, prejudice and discrimination over the years. They spilled blood for this country at home and on distant battlefields and fought for better schools, better wages and better government with astounding measures of dignity and civility.

As the holiday approaches, understand the African-American experience as a challenging one filled with tragedy, yet triumph, hope and determination.

Confront the fact slavery contributed immeasurably to the America we know today.

Know the African-American experience has been largely excluded from history books.

Acknowledge the plight of Black Americans as the impetus for achieving justice and equality for all people.

Endeavor as Americans to work with others in unity; put people first; and be a part of the movement protecting the dignity and respect of all.

Lastly, realize freedom is a work in progress demanding collective efforts to move our country closer to its Constitutional vision, and that can sometimes be a long, meandering and arduous journey.