This Friday comes a holiday that many of us may not remember.
Perhaps just as many may not even be aware of its existence. But 150 years ago, a Union Army general made clear through a formal order in Texas that all slaves were free. This year, millions of Americans will celebrate the anniversary of what has come to be called Juneteenth.
Over two years prior to the first Juneteenth, the Emancipation Proclamation was issued by President Abraham Lincoln, which stated "all persons held as slaves are, and henceforward shall be free."
In fact, many slaves had no idea that such a proclamation existed. The news traveled slowly into the Southern states, even moreso once slaveholders began evading the encroaching Union Army by heading for Texas.
However, by June 19, 1865, the news caught up with them.
"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 personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere," according to General Orders, Number 3; Headquarters District of Texas, Galveston, June 19, 1865.
Of course, it wasn't a matter of some grand proclamation followed by black and white hands shaking. Such massive societal and economic change fails to come smoothly.
Many slaveholders waited to announce the news to their slaves until after harvest. Former slaves who heard the order and took advantage of their newfound freedom were often punished by acts of violence and murder.
The harsh realities of that first Juneteenth make it hard to understand why it is a day celebrated with such joy. But we look back and understand that while it wasn't a picture-perfect moment, it was one in which the disenfranchised heard directly from the powers that be that they were equals.
It was a day not just of talk, but of active change that resonates through American history.
As we commemorate Juneteenth's 150th anniversary on Friday, people nationwide will be remembering this time with a spirit of pride and hope for the future of American equality. There are multiple events taking place in Atlanta and other nearby cities that may be worth attending, but even a private reading of the Emancipation Proclamation with friends or family is an edifying and inspiring way to honor this moment in our nation's history.
-- Natalia Naman Temesgen is an independent contractor. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.