Editorial: Juneteenth reminds us freedom is everything

On June 19, 1865, Union troops reached Galveston, Texas, and informed its Black residents that they were a free people. The 246 years of slavery that began in Virginia in 1619 had finally come to an end, with that news reaching the last of the enslaved people in America.

The Civil War had ended the previous April, and two years before that, in January 1863, President Abraham Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing — on paper, anyway — enslaved people in the rebellious southern states, which included Texas.

It took more than two years for word of that proclamation to reach the 250,000 enslaved men, women and children across the state of Texas. 

In Galveston, their joy was celebrated and the event became known as “Juneteenth.” In June 2021, 156 years later, President Biden signed legislation making Juneteenth a national holiday.

This weekend and on Monday, June 19, the holiday will be celebrated across the North Fork. In a country where the teaching of American history has become a victim of the so-called culture wars, celebrating freedom with a national holiday is something for all Americans to be proud of. It is an affirmation that history is telling the whole story.

On Shelter Island, which in the 17th century was a slave plantation, a commemorative ceremony with a “Calling of the Names” will be held Saturday, June 17, from noon to 1:30 p.m. at the Afro-Indigenous Burial Ground at Sylvester Manor, where more than 200 people of color are buried in unmarked graves. Years of research have discovered the names of 50 of them. 

Overall, research by the North Fork Project has revealed the names of more than 360 persons enslaved by local families in Southold and what later became Riverhead Town.

In Greenport, a Juneteenth celebration and community picnic will be held June 17 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Clinton Memorial AME Zion Church at 614 Third St. The church’s pastor, the Rev. Natalie Wimberly, has written a guest column in this week’s Suffolk Times and Riverhead News-Review on the meaning of the holiday.

She writes: “The first major celebration was held June 19, 1866, by the freedmen of Galveston. The aptly named ‘Jubilee Day’ was celebrated with drinks and food at picnics, where people played games and music and danced. In addition to celebrating freedom and cultural heritage, this was a day to learn about their rights as American citizens, grass roots politics, voter registration and the importance of education. It wasn’t until the 1890s that Juneteenth became the official name of this holiday, honoring the day when the news of the ‘forever free’ was finally heard by thousands of enslaved people in Galveston.”

In Riverhead, the holiday has been celebrated for years by the East End Voter Coalition. One of the events the group hosts is an essay contest for students at Pulaski Street School. As reported by riverheadlocal.com, fifth-grade students are asked to write a diary entry as if they were a young slave in Galveston on June 19, 1865.

This year’s winning essay, by Sara Martinez Acosta, begins this way: “After all this suffering, I’m actually free, thank god! Now I don’t have to clean for anyone or cook plus I’m free from my master. I can’t get sold anymore.”

The holiday we celebrate June 19 is a day that honors freedom for all Americans. As we debate what “freedom” means in our country today, perhaps thinking about the enslaved people who learned from Union Army Gen. Gordon Granger that they were no longer owned by anyone will reinforce the good in our past.