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I'd Rather Have Progress Than a Holiday

know your facts Jun 14, 2023
US style flag with african pride colors of red, black, green, and yellow

I have conflicting emotions about Juneteenth as a US national holiday. I’m happy for people to have the day off and for more people to learn what Juneteenth is and why it’s important. And at the same time, what’s changed?

Black folks are still being stereotyped, discriminated against, and killed for existing. We’re still being called “uppity” in so many words for expecting to be treated with the same respect as white people. There are coordinated efforts to erase our contributions to the country and the harm done to us by the country from US history.

I’d gladly give up a holiday for some real change.

What it Means

On June 19, 1865, Major General Gordon Granger led Union soldiers into Galveston, TX to read general Order No 3, which announced that the Civil War was over and slavery in the Confederacy had been abolished by President Lincoln. The emancipation proclamation went into effect January 1, 1863.

Juneteenth is a mashup of June and nineteenth, the month and day of this announcement, and commemorates the last announcement that Confederate slaves were free - two and a half years after the emancipation proclamation. And keeping it real, this was date of the last official announcement, not the day the last enslaved person was freed.

While General Order No. 3 was a bold move, it isn’t the abolitionist take that many people think of when we talk about emancipation and freedom. The announcement encourages the newly freed enslaved folks to stay on the plantations and continue to work for their former owners!

“The people 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, become that between employer and hired labor. The freed are advised to remain 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.”

Enslaved Folks Were Multidimensional

When we talk about the history of slavery in the US, it often feels one-dimensional, like my people didn’t exist before we were enslaved and weren’t real people with feeling and desires and pain until we were “freed.” It’s like history happened to us (except for a few notable exceptions like Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass) instead of us creating history the same way white people did.

Despite media portrayals, Black people were not sitting idly, waiting to be rescued. Before we were enslaved, we were engineers, writers, artists, mathematicians, scientists, teachers in our own cultures. Despite being separated from everyone who could speak our language, we learned to communicate with the people around us, learned to read and write English against the law, combined our own religions with the religion forced upon us. While we were enslaved, we rebelled, and worked for the Union Army, not only as soldiers, but also as spies against the Confederacy. We played an active role in our own emancipation.

“The true history of this war will show that the loyal army found no friends at the South so faithful, active, and daring in their efforts to sustain the government as the Negroes. Negroes have repeatedly threaded their way through the lines of the rebels exposing themselves to bullets to convey important information to the loyal army of the Potomac." Frederick Douglass, 1862

Abolitionists In Action

The Loyal League was a group of Black abolitionists who came together more than 10 years before the Civil War at the State Convention of the Colored Citizens of Ohio in 1851. According to Hari Jones, curator of the African American Civil War Museum in Washington, they voted 28-2 “to work in league with the Constitution to gain equal rights as citizens and abolish slavery.” They would come to be referred to as the 4Ls: Lincoln’s Legal Loyal League or the Loyal League.

John Scobell was a free Black man who impersonated a slave to spy on Confederate soldiers for the Union Army. White Confederate soldiers had no idea that the Black man who served as their field hand, deck hand, or butler could read the important documents they left lying around and understand the military discussions about troop movements. They didn’t suspect that a Black man could relay the information to the Union Army.

In May 1863, Gen. Robert E. Lee, commander of the Confederate Army, stated, "The chief source of information to the enemy is through our negroes."

Head of the Union Intelligence Service at the beginning of the Civil War, Allan Pinkerton memorialized his use of Black spies in his autobiography, including missions by Scobell.

So many of the spies were Black Women.

Mary Touvestre, a free woman who was formerly enslaved, worked for an engineer who participated in converting the USS Merrimac into the first Confederate ironclad warship, the CSS Virginia. She stole the warship plans and shared them with officials at the Department of the Navy in Washington, DC. This intelligence drove the Union to immediately work on their own ironclad, the USS Monitor. It was completed just in time to neutralize the threat of the CSS Virginia to the Union fleet at the Battle of the Ironclads in Hampton Roads, VA. Without the bravery and smarts of Mary Touvestre, the Confederacy would likely have defeated the Union fleet.

Mary Jane Richards/Mary Elizabeth Bowser was a Black woman who was born enslaved and then freed in 1843 by Elizabeth Van Lew after the death of her husband. Bowser stayed on with Van Lew as a paid servant and Van Lew sent her to school up North, probably in Philadelphia. When Bowser returned to Richmond at the start of the Civil War, she was jailed for 10 days because it was illegal in Virginia for a former slave who left the colony for an education to return. Van Lew posted Bowser’s bail and recruited her to spy for the Union. Bowser used the alias Ellen Bond and posed as a slave servant to President Jefferson Davis in the Confederate White House. Davis didn’t suspect Ellen Bond was the leak in his White House for years until near the end of the war. Mary Elizabeth Bowser was able to escape, and she unsuccessfully tried to burn down the Confederate White House as a last act of defiance. In 1995 the U.S. Government inducted Mary Bowser in the "U.S. Army Military Intelligence Corps Hall of Fame".

Giving Props

Most movies and TV shows about the Civil War focus on the white soldiers, but not the Black operatives that intercepted the information that informed the Unions tactics.

According to the CIA, " ‘Black Dispatches’ was a common term used among Union military men for intelligence on Confederate forces provided by Negroes. This source of information represented the single most prolific and productive category of intelligence obtained and acted on by Union forces throughout the Civil War.”

How Much Do You Know?

Test your knowledge of Black American contributions to the Civil War with this short quiz.

Still Waiting for Change

So as we celebrate Black emancipation, let us honor the true history of an intelligent, active, resilient people who worked for their own liberation. And acknowledge that three years after George Floyd’s murder sparked global protests for equality and two years after Biden signed the bill to create this federal holiday, we still have not received the basic protections we protested for.

Voter protections

The Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act in 2013. Congress failed to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Amendment that would outlaw voter suppression currently happening at the state level in Republican-controlled states.

Congress also failed to pass the Freedom to Vote Act, which would have standardized basic voting rights like:

  • making Election Day a national holiday to make it easier for more voters to get to the polls
  • allowing states to have early voting for at least two weeks prior to Election Day, including nights and weekends
  • allowing voting by mail with no excuses needed, and allowing drop boxes
  • requiring states to provide disability access
  • requiring that states that require IDs for voting to broaden the types of acceptable identification.
  • requiring same-day voting registration, online registration, and easier registration at places like departments of motor vehicles

Police Reform (While We Fight For Abolition)

Congress failed to pass the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act which would have:

  • worked to end racial and religious profiling
  • banned choke holds and no-knock warrants
  • limited military equipment on American streets
  • hold police accountable by making it easier to prosecute offending officers and recover civil damages by eliminating qualified immunity
  • investigate misconduct at the federal level
  • invest in community-based programs to reimagine public safety
  • create a national police misconduct database
  • and make it a crime for a federal officer to rape (they use “have sex,” but that’s not accurate with the power dynamics) someone in custody (I would have thought this was illegal already, but…) and incentivize states to do the same

Any one of the proposals listed above would be more meaningful to me than a holiday. I don’t want songs.

Parties are fine, but this misguided “inclusion” from the Juneteenth Galviston Inc. makes me feel like people are missing the point and Juneteenth is being gentrified. Some Black folks are so busy inviting everyone to the cookout that they put two white people on a Juneteenth promotional banner.


I don’t want feel good performative action. I want to be safe in my own neighborhood.  I want my family and friends to not be in danger when they travel, to not have to worry about some angry white person "standing their ground" against them for existing. I want everyone to make it home safely. And a holiday doesn’t do that for me.


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