Reflections on the Juneteenth Holiday for the SAAS Community
“And yet emancipation came not simply to black folk in 1863; to white Americans came slowly a new vision and a new uplift, a sudden freeing of hateful mental shadows. At last democracy was to be justified of its own children.” -W.E.B. DuBois, Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880
I write to you on the eve of Juneteenth to share the significance of this holiday and to situate its meaning within the context of our experience during this last year. Just yesterday on June 17, President Biden signed legislation to make Juneteenth a federal holiday, enshrining June 19 as the national day to commemorate the end of slavery in the United States. As Juneteenth falls on a Saturday this year, today marks the first federal observance of the holiday.
Juneteenth and its historic centrality within the African American community was unknown to me growing up. I had known well that the Emancipation Proclamation, issued on January 1, 1863, declared all enslaved people to be free. I didn’t learn until I was in college that thousands of men, women, and children residing in places still under Confederate control would be denied legal access to their liberation for years to come. In the westernmost Confederate state of Texas, freedom arrived on June 19, 1865, when Union troops arrived in Galveston, Texas. General Gordon Granger announced that the more than 250,000 enslaved Black people in the state were finally free by executive decree. The celebration of those emancipated people would serve as the basis for the Juneteenth holiday, finally marking the fulfillment of the dream of independence for all.
Juneteenth is fundamentally a celebration of freedom by those whose liberation had been intentionally withheld. It is a recognition of the jubilance that comes from bodily autonomy tempered only by the bone-deep memory of bondage. The racial reckoning of the past fifteen months spurred on by the killing of George Floyd and coupled with the uncertainty of a global pandemic finds us as a school and national community continuing to ask the questions: Who are we? What are our values? What principles must we commit to and hold each other accountable to living?
At Seattle Academy, we have moved forward in aligning our values with who we are in thought, word, and deed. We are engaging the challenging and necessary work of ongoing curriculum review, personal and professional development in our anti-racist and anti-bias commitments, and creating systems that promote equity, inclusion, and belonging. For us, the work of liberation demands that we develop our cultural agility, engage in civic action, and center the human talent and potential of each community member. We are accountable to each other when we succeed, and mostly importantly, when we fall short. We also remain accountable to the 250,000 people in Galveston, Texas who persisted in attaining their own freedom. We, too, must be animated by a relentless patience and pursuit of liberation for all who continue to be oppressed. We must amplify the voices of those who are underrepresented and to examine our own complicity in upholding systems of privilege and power.
Each year I am struck by how palpable the spirit of Juneteenth is in our daily lives. It is a holiday and a story about becoming—the becoming of a newly freed people, the becoming of a nation attempting to heal itself from civil division, and the becoming of a world shaped by liberation. The act of becoming is a dynamic process that requires intention and careful ministration. As a country, America is becoming answerable to its historic narrative of violence toward Black, Brown, and Asian people. We continue to become a nation that seeks to translate the local and federal acknowledgments of Juneteenth as a holiday into long lasting racial equity and inclusion for the African American community.
Every day SAAS is engaging in its own process of becoming. We are becoming individuals more thoroughly aware of our blindspots. We are becoming a community fortified by our growing anti-racist and anti-bias skills. We are becoming an institution rooted in anti-oppression.
I wish the entire SAAS community a Happy (observed) Juneteenth today. Let us celebrate the resilience and hope of this holiday. Let us reflect on the liberation we have achieved and be mindful of the work needed in pursuit of the jubilee of freedom.
Assistant Head of School for Academics
Please find below a brief selection of resources that explore the Black histories and stories surrounding Juneteenth: