A Statement on Juneteenth

A call to mark the holiday, from the Racial Equity Council

Fourth Presbyterian Church’s Racial Equity Council invites the whole congregation to embrace and join in the commemoration and celebration of Juneteenth. To widen and deepen the celebration of this day by all members of Fourth Church, the Racial Equity Council presents this brief history and reflection.

Though the Emancipation Proclamation was issued January 1, 1863, it was not until more than two years later that the people of Texas, the most remote state of the former Confederacy, first learned of freedom for enslaved people, which they did when Union soldiers, following the end of the Civil War, traveled to Galveston where the pronouncement was publicly read on June 19, 1865. Celebrations of Juneteenth started in Texas, which declared Juneteenth a state holiday starting in 1980. By 2019, forty-seven states recognized Juneteenth, and it became a federal holiday in 2021.

In the immediate post-Civil War era, there was much hope that the formerly enslaved people would finally have peaceful and free lives. Families tried to reunite. The granting of land by the federal government promised to provide a means to live, and African American men were given the right to vote. During Reconstruction, 16 African Americans were elected to the U.S. Congress, 600 to state legislatures, and hundreds more to local offices. However, the backlash against these changes was swift, widespread, and ruthless. The land grants were taken back within a year. African Americans were depicted as little more than savages while Ku Klux Klansmen were depicted as saviors, as famously portrayed in the 1915 film The Birth of a Nation. Lynchings, Black Codes, and Jim Crow laws that only applied or were only enforced against Black people kept the formerly enslaved people subservient. One example was the practice of imprisoning formerly enslaved people for violations of vagrancy laws and using the resulting prison labor for profit.

Fourth Presbyterian Church is committed to racial equity, the purposeful inclusion of all people, the striving for radical hospitality, and the modeling of anti-racism. As we strive to be an anti-racist church, our observance of Juneteenth comes with the sobering recognition that racism today bears a striking resemblance to the Jim Crow era. Examples of this include voter suppression laws, disproportionate incarceration and killing of Black people, hate-filled lies, and inflammatory rhetoric. Indeed, white majority institutions of today unfortunately reflect the white supremacy values that have been embedded for centuries and passed down through the generations. Anti-racism goes beyond diversity. It is a spiritual practice of self-reflection that examines how we individually live out the truth that God created humanity in God’s own image. It examines the structures that comprise our processes and practices to understand their impact on BIPOC people and works to identify and remove structural obstacles to full participation by all in the life of the church.

While this is a time for reflection, Juneteenth is also a time for celebration. Many people celebrate with family reunions and backyard parties. Many cities hold street fairs with music and dancing. Museums have special exhibits. The Racial Equity Council invites everyone to mark this holiday in their own way, which could be by visiting the websites of museums to learn more about African American history or by shopping at Black-owned businesses. The National Museum of African American History and Culture and the International African American Museum are two good places to start.

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