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Editorial

Why we must commemorate Juneteenth

Posted

On April 9, 1865, Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse in Virginia, ending the Civil War, the bloodiest conflict in American history, in which an estimated 498,000 soldiers died in battle. With the surrender of the South, slavery ended with the stroke of a pen.

But not quite. News of the emancipation of slaves did not reach Texas, a slave-holding state, until June 19, 1865. On that day, Union forces arrived on Galveston Island to free Texas’s slaves, who rejoiced in the streets. Since then, Juneteenth — a blend of June and 19th — has been celebrated in Texas.

It officially became a state holiday in 1980, but as of last year, only Texas recognized Juneteenth as a paid holiday for state employees.

Last week, Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed an executive order proclaiming Juneteenth an official New York holiday, on which state employees will receive a paid day off, starting next year. It was the right move.

If you think about it, June 19, 1865, was effectively the day when all Americans were at last free. The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution applied to all white people, but not to all black people. Millions were held in bondage, beaten and defiled into subservience. According to the 1860 census, there were 4 million slaves in the U.S., accounting for 12.9 percent of the country’s total population of 31 million.

For centuries, the U.S. held Fourth of July celebrations — as well it should have — but rarely, if ever, did we recognize that the hard-fought freedoms won during the Revolutionary War did not apply to millions for 76 years after the Constitution took effect.

Juneteenth — celebrated in Texas with cookouts, rodeos and street fairs — reminds us of that horrid reality, at the same time that it celebrates the victory over the evil of slavery.

We must remember and reflect on our nation’s long history of enslavement if we are to understand our present-day systemic racism — and someday soon, we hope, overcome it.

The death of George Floyd in Minneapolis on Memorial Day unleashed a wave of hundreds of peaceful protests and a handful of riots. It was clearly an inflection point in our history, a moment that, it appears, will move the needle further toward freedom and justice for all, regardless of skin color. New York, we are pleased to say, is playing a leading role in that movement.