Juneteenth, also known as Juneteenth Independence Day, or Freedom Day, gets its name from its date – June 19. Commemorating the official freedom of all slaves in the United States (specifically in the former Confederate States of America,) this American holiday celebrates the June 19, 1865 announcement of the abolition of slavery in the state of Texas. As far as most American knowledge goes, President Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves all at once, and that was the end of it. It is true that the Emancipation Proclamation became official on January 1, 1863. However, this news – and enforcement of it – did not reach the slaves in Texas until two and a half years later. On June 19, 1865, Major General Gordon Granger landed at Galveston, Texas along with soldiers from the Union to announce that the war had ended and the slaves had been freed. This was facilitated by the surrender of General Lee two months earlier, and the reinforcement of Union troop numbers. According to Juneteenth.com, any number of reasons could explain the egregious delay – a murdered messenger, plantation owners deliberately withholding information, federal troops waiting for one last cotton harvest – but the effect remains: a slave, now a free man, grappling with both the freedom he’d sought and the trials that got him there. A question arises: “I’m free—so now what?
That question was usually answered by lynching, undue prison time, and other atrocities. In 2019, and the time preceding, we have not improved by much. Seattle Central College’s library and the Office of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion focused one of the events in its Conversations on Social Issues (COSI) talk series on Juneteenth. This series of talks takes place weekly in Room A of the campus library on Thursdays, aiming to bring light to social issues that are relevant to students and faculty of Seattle Central by providing a forum to delve into these issues more deeply. The Juneteenth-focused talk took place at noon on Thursday, June 6, entitled “The Legacy of Juneteenth: the Current Struggle for Black Liberation in Seattle”. The event’s page on the Seattle Central website highlights Juneteenth’s continued importance: “Juneteenth is a holiday that celebrates Black struggle, resilience, and collective liberation. Part of honoring that history requires understanding how the struggle for liberation continues today. This panel will highlight the work of Seattle-based organizers and activists to discuss how we can support the fight locally.” During the talk, four guest speakers sat at the front of the room, each with their own personal connection to Black liberation and means of getting there, while looking upon several clusters of tables filled with students and staff alike. The speakers were Gerald Hankerson, president of the Seattle King County NAACP; president of Concerned Lifers Organization, and founder of the Black Prisoners Caucus; Shaunie Wheeler, president of Emerging Young Labor Leaders (Washington State Labor Council) and Political Director for Teamsters Joint Council 28; and Jarrell Davis and Oloth Insyxiengmay of the No New Youth Jail campaign. They each took turns explaining what Black liberation meant to them, what their plans were, and why they were there.
“A judge’s gavel is no different than a racist cop’s gun,” spoke Gerald Hankerson, who was wrongfully convicted of aggravated murder in 1987 and went on to become one of the few men to have his life sentence commuted by then-governor Christine Gregoire – 22 years later, in 2009. According to the NAACP’s Criminal Justice Fact Sheet, Black people are convicted at five times higher rates than White people. Though they only comprise 32 percent of the population along with Latinx people, together, they make up 56 percent of the prison population. And the Thirteenth Amendment itself – the amendment added explicitly to ensure the end of slavery – allows slavery and indentured servitude in the case of “punishment for a crime”: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” [Emphasis added.] “The very law that freed us as slaves […] locked us up in prisons,” stated Hankerson.
Naturally, in a city host to several companies that rely on prison labor (Boeing and Starbucks, for example,) and one that’s funneling 225 million dollars into the new youth jail in the Central District, incarceration and the passive-aggressive racism of the Seattle area were some of the main themes of the panel – and remains to be one in our day to day lives. Two other key components were education and the right to work, which would tackle the school-to-prison pipeline, the lack of funding in largely minority-populated schools, and the lack of knowledge surrounding labor unions and trade jobs in poor minority neighborhoods. Rainier Beach High School, with nearly a 50 percent Black population and more than 80 percent of students coming from a low-income household, was slated to be shut down a decade ago; now, in 2019, the fifth episode of the HBO show “Wyatt Cenac’s Problem Areas” highlights Rainier Beach’s continued struggle for equity and funding. Along with continuous attacks on labor unions and misinformation, the massive incarceration rates, lack of support for students who “act out” (87 percent of incarcerated people in Washington were suspended or expelled) and continuous underfunding of vital programs for supporting a budding future circles back to the same dilemma faced on the very first Juneteenth, back when those Union soldiers finally arrived: “I’m free – so now what?” Is one really free when trouble at home could cost you your free life, deigned to packaging holiday blends for coffee giants when not in your cell? Is it really the free path if it’s paved with potholes the city won’t pay to fix?
At the beginning of the meeting, acknowledgements to the traditional homes and thanks were given to the peoples who were on this land before all others– the Coast Salish people, all tribes and bands within the Duwamish, Suquamish, Tulalip and Muckleshoot nations. At the very end, before being dismissed, participants were asked to stand, pick an ancestor and take a quiet moment to appreciate them by Applied Behavioral Science (ABS) instructor Valerie Hunt, Ph.D., giving thanks to the sacrifices they made – and the long, winding road it took – to bring us to where we stood in that moment. As Juneteenth approaches and the days grow longer, perhaps it’s time to really consider what we can do to honor their struggle, and with that youth jail looming, whether or not Seattle is really the “progressive haven” it claims to be. Juneteenth is a nationally recognized holiday that will fall on Wednesday this year, with millions already gathering across the U.S. to celebrate it — and many more are welcome to join in. Several Juneteenth-relevant books are listed on the Seattle Central library’s website. In addition, there are plenty of wonderful Juneteenth events, from potlucks to performances, occurring in the greater Seattle area on June 19 (and beyond) to keep the conversation going.