On June 19th , 1865, Union General Gordon Granger would arrive in Galveston, Texas and issue the following order which proclaimed, “The people of Texas are informed that in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them became that between employer and free laborer.” Remarkably, many of the citizens of Texas and the more than 200,000 slaves that inhabited the state had failed to hear of the Emancipation Proclamation, which had went into effect January 1st, 1863.
Texas would make it a state holiday in 1980, and today most states have an official day of observance to recognize this last recorded freeing of the slaves as parades, picnics, prayer services, and proclamation recitations are all standard ways that have come to represent many of the nation's official Juneteenth commemorations that now enter their 152nd
Chattanooga has several interesting links to this national commemoration. After the Confederates had swept over half the Union Army off the Chickamauga Battlefield (September 20th, 1863), it was General Gordon Granger who would, without orders, rush to shore up the weakening line which had been constructed by the Rock of Chickamauga George H. Thomas and save the Union Army during that epic battle. After the Civil War concluded, many of the former slaves would turn to the Freeman's Bureau for aide, guidance, and support. It was General Oliver O. Howard who headed this agency, and our very own Howard School is named in his honor. According to a February 2000 Chattanooga Times Free Press article a, Mary Walker was America's last living slave and lived to see an age of 121 (1848-1969). Born a slave in Union Springs, Alabama, Mary Walker arrived in Chattanooga circa... 1917 and remained here until her death. At the age of 116 she enrolled in the Chattanooga Area Literacy Movement class and learned to read, write, and perform basic mathematics, and for this she was declared "oldest" student in the nation by the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. In a life that spanned from Presidents James K. Polk to Richard Nixon, she would be alive during the signing and ratification of both the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment, and would go on to receive multiple Chattanooga Ambassador of Goodwill awards. The late Rev. John L. Edwards Jr. formed the Mary Walker Historical and Education Foundation in part to honor her, and in addition to promoting African-American historical preservation and literacy, the foundation helped to organize the first of Chattanooga's Juneteenth celebrations.
On this the 152nd anniversary of Juneteenth, as a community we should be resolved to reflect and remember the lessons of our past in order to build a more perfect Union and better America. First, we must do as Lincoln urged us to and, "lean to the better angels of our nature" as citizens, students and families. Secondly, 151 years after the signing and ratification of the 13th Amendment, we should make the affirming crust of that document, "neither slavery nor involuntary servitude" very plain and very real. There are currently over 20 million enslaved people in the world, and we should support organizations who oppose this societal scourge like Second Life Chattanooga because human trafficking and slavery is a menace that must be permanently eradicated from our world.
Thirdly, we should prescribe to the notion that calls for universal human rights. Each December 10th the United Nations celebrates International Human Rights Day, and on this December the world commemorated this year's theme: “Stand Up for Someone’s Rights Today”, and reaffirmed the United Nations's two International Covenants on Human Rights: the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Along with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, this Triumvirate of Tranquility forms the context and foundation for the world's International Bill of Human Rights by striving to promote, "the inherent dignity of and the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family." In addition to basic human principles, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaims that we all are endowed with the ability to enjoy four fundamental human freedoms, which are: (1) Freedom of Speech; (2) Freedom of Religion; (3) Freedom from Want; and (4) Freedom from Fear.
Lastly, we should disavow and divest ourselves of all forms of bigotry, indifference, intolerance and violence. On this year, the Southern Poverty Law Center is tracking more than 1,600 extremist groups, reports that over 890 hate groups are currently operating in the U.S., and states that there have been 1,372 reported bias incidents since the November 2016 Presidential election. The Equal Justice Initiative is another organization that is striving to teach us to atone for the sins of our past. In their 2015 Lynching In America report, the EJI details that there were more lynchings than was previously thought that occurred between the late 1800's to mid 1900's, 4,075. The EJI has recently broken ground on a national memorial to remember this painful aspect of the past, and with the help of Google announced on June 13th the creation of an online platform so that the public may be able to digitally learn and explore this important yet unfortunate chapter of history (https://lynchinginamerica.eji.org). We should remember that anger gives rise to anger, violence only begets violence, hatred fosters further hatred, and evil enhances habitual evil, but love is the strongest of these and conquers them all, and this we must affirm as we strive to be one nation, many believe under God, “indivisible”, with liberty and justice not just for the one, but liberty and justice for us all.
For more information on Juneteenth you may visit the Juneteenth National Registry at: http://www.juneteenth.com/history.htm.
Eric A. Atkins