Sunday, June 19, 2022
Fourth Presbyterian Church’s Racial Equity Council invites the whole congregation to embrace and join in the commemoration and celebration of Juneteenth. While Juneteenth has only recently become a federal holiday, it has long been widely recognized and celebrated by Black Americans as a special day of independence. To widen and deepen the celebration of this day by all members of Fourth Church, the Racial Equity Council presents this brief history and reflections.
Though the Civil War ended on April 9, 1865, word of the war ending and the emancipation from slavery spread to different areas at different times. Two months after the war the people of Texas, the most remote state of the former Confederacy, first learned that the enslaved people of Texas were free. Union soldiers traveled to Galveston, Texas, where the pronouncement was publicly read by a Union general on June 19, 1865.
Celebrations of Juneteenth started in Texas and eventually spread to communities and cities across the country. Texas declared Juneteenth a state holiday starting in 1980, and by 2019, forty-seven states recognized Juneteenth. In addition, on June 15, 2021, the United States Senate unanimously passed a bill declaring Juneteenth as a federal holiday. The House approved the bill by a vote of 415–4, and the President signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act into law on June 17, 2021.
In the immediate post-Civil War era, there was much hope that the formerly enslaved people would finally be able to have peaceful and free lives. Families tried to reunite as newspapers contained many notices looking for family members who had been sold to other enslavers. 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. Many of these leaders had gained their freedom before the Civil War, and many were ministers. However, the land grants were taken back within a year. Many White Southerners who were outraged that former slaves could have the right to vote made every effort to keep the former slaves in conditions similar to slavery, employing falsehoods, discriminatory laws, and violence. 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. In addition to widespread lynchings, the passage of Black Codes and Jim Crow laws that only applied or were only enforced against Black people had devastating impacts on African Americans. One example was the practice of imprisoning formerly enslaved people for violations of vagrancy laws and using the resulting prison labor for profit.
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, the 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 in our country’s history for centuries and passed down through the generations. Anti-racism goes beyond diversity. It examines the structures that comprise our processes and practices to understand their impact on our BIPOC brothers and sisters and works to remove structural obstacles to their full participation in the life of the church.
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. Toward this end, a year ago on this date—the inaugural federal holiday of Juneteenth in 2021—the Racial Equity Council presented to the Session a comprehensive audit of all aspects of the church, identifying race-oppressive structures and practices, and recommending more loving, welcoming, and anti-racist alternatives. We are hopeful that the church’s racial equity steps forward in the last year can be readily seen and felt, even though the congregation and its membership have a long way to go to become the Beloved Community we all seek to be. We welcome all in our journey forward.