Juneteenth: A time for celebration, yes, but also for reflection


Martha’s Vineyard will be brimming with Juneteenth celebrations this weekend. The Amistad — a replica of a slave ship that was taken over by a group of enslaved people in the 1830s — will be pulling into Vineyard Haven for tours for the public; Martha’s Vineyard Camp Meeting Association will hold a flag-raising ceremony in Oak Bluffs; Pulitzer prizewinner and creator of the landmark 1619 Project Nikole Hannah-Jones will give a talk about the history of the Island and the African American community.

Juneteenth is a day of celebration. It commemorates the end of slavery. Emancipation was issued in 1863, but it wasn’t until 1865 — June 19 — that Major Gen. Gordon Granger and his troops came to Galveston, Texas, to inform the enslaved people, where word had not yet reached, that they were free. 

On the Island and across the country, June 19, like it was in 1865, will be a moment to celebrate freedom, not just for African Americans, but every American.

Juneteenth is also a time to reflect on the struggles and efforts of Black leaders that led to emancipation. It’s a moment to learn American history, and not just the “tip of the iceberg” that we learn in school, as Islander Larry Jones told us. Jones is director of outreach and docent tour guide for the African American Heritage Trail of Martha’s Vineyard. He urges us to learn more about the abolitionists like Frederick Douglass and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper. And local stories too, like Paul Cuffe from Cuttyhunk, the son of a freed slave who became an abolitionist and one of the wealthiest men in the country.

Perhaps none is more important to emancipation than Frederick Douglass, some argue even more so than President Abraham Lincoln. Douglass, among other things, convinced an ambivalent Lincoln to allow Black men to serve in the U.S. Army. After Lincoln consented, Douglass was able to convince Black men to join the Army by providing equal pay, credited by some for turning the war’s tide in favor of the North. 

Douglass’ own two sons joined the Army, along with roughly 200,000 Black men. They made up roughly 10 percent of the entire Army. 

There are also the sacrifices of Black women, who helped the Union Army as scouts, or nurses, or spies — like Harriet Tubman, who risked her life and snuck behind Confederate lines to spy. Tubman also led Union troops on missions to destroy Confederate outposts and cut off supply lines. 

Some historians argue that Lincoln is given too much credit for emancipation, and not enough was given to Black abolitionists and the former slaves themselves. Lincoln was originally, after all, not an abolitionist. 

In an essay titled “Lincoln gets way too much credit for freeing enslaved Black people” by Wellesley history Professor Kellie Carter Jackson, Jackson argues that enslaved people took action that ultimately forced elected officials to end slavery. Just before the Civil War started, the enslaved were uniting and rebelling. During the war, hundreds of thousands of slaves fled plantations in the South, essentially forcing the end of the practice. “Freedom did not come from the White House or Congress,” Jackson writes. “Black people were not given freedom; they forced freedom to become a national mandate.” Those enslaved people escaping the South would also enlist in the Army.

So when we celebrate our freedom this weekend, let’s think of that fight and those efforts to defeat a truly horrific practice.

But also on Juneteenth, we should reflect on where we are, and where we want to go as a country. 

It is too often that we see Black men beaten and killed at the hands of police in this country; Black men have a much higher rate of incarceration than their white counterparts, because of a history of discrimination and injustice; schools across the country are censoring books that teach the history of slavery; in certain parts of country that happen to have a large Black population, there are unfair impediments to voting; because of redlining and other discriminatory practices, the Black population hasn’t been able to amass the same amount of wealth as white America; the FBI says that white supremacist pose the greatest domestic terrorist threat in the country. While there is freedom, there is not equality.

So this weekend is a time to celebrate, yes, but it’s also a time to reflect on the need for change. 

But Juneteenth does also act as a reminder that there is hope. It comes from a very American story that through perseverance and sacrifice, oppression can be defeated.

Elaine Weintraub, co-founder of the African American Heritage Trail of Martha’s Vineyard, recently said in a video story produced by The Times, “There’s a hope that people will value their own freedom and the freedom of everyone else [on Juneteenth]. And believe that they can overthrow injustice.”