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The unfinished business of Juneteenth

The task of helping Black Americans find a secure economic footing in our society is still incomplete.

Two women walk past a mural in Tulsa, Okla., commemorating Black Wall Street, which was destroyed by a white mob in 1921. Creating more economic opportunities for Black Americans is an unfulfilled aspect of emancipation, writes Chad Dion Lassiter.
Two women walk past a mural in Tulsa, Okla., commemorating Black Wall Street, which was destroyed by a white mob in 1921. Creating more economic opportunities for Black Americans is an unfulfilled aspect of emancipation, writes Chad Dion Lassiter.Read moreSue Ogrocki / AP

In an 1898 speech honoring the memory of Abraham Lincoln, Booker T. Washington told of a former enslaved person who described his life since emancipation by saying, “I’s got my second freedom.”

His first freedom, Washington explained, had come with the end of chattel slavery. His second freedom — the promise of relief from the peonage that followed emancipation — came with a cost. It would take 20 years of “severe struggle” to get out of debt, pay for his 50 acres of land, build a home, and educate his children. But his was a rare story of success.

Far too many Americans are still searching for their “second freedom.” The nation’s four million enslaved people learned quickly that physical freedom did not mean equal access to economic opportunity. “The law can abolish servitude,” Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in Democracy in America in 1835, “but only God can obliterate its traces.”

On June 19, 1865, the last enslaved Americans and their captors became no longer enslaver and enslaved but employer and worker. With limited job choices, thousands began working for the single largest post-slavery employer of African Americans: the Pullman Palace Car Co.

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In the 1860s, the engineer George M. Pullman designed a wildly popular sleeper railroad car that bore his name. When he went looking for workers for the rail line, he sought attentive servants who could cater to the whims of his well-heeled travelers, work under terrible conditions, and offer few complaints.

Underpaid, overworked, and forced to endure constant racism, Pullman porters were expected to work 400 hours a month. Pullman knew the workers “would come cheap, and he paid them next to nothing,” said the historian Larry Tye, the author of Rising from the Rails: Pullman Porters and the Making of the Black Middle Class.

“Lincoln freed the slaves,” went an oft-told joke of the day, “and the Pullman Co. hired them.” Coincidentally, it was Robert Todd Lincoln, Lincoln’s son, who became the president of Pullman cars in 1897, and who helped the company out of bankruptcy by cutting porters’ wages to nearly starvation levels, which forced them to live off tips.

After the creation of the first predominantly Black labor union and waves of intense negotiations with the Pullman Co., conditions had improved for porters by the late 1930s.

In the decades that followed, other efforts were made to improve the work lives of poor Black people. In the 1950s, leaders of the civil rights movement would draw upon the organizing tactics used by the Pullman porters in their efforts to bring an end to legalized segregation.

In 1962, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called on President John F. Kennedy to issue “a second Emancipation Proclamation to free all Negroes from second class citizenship.” After President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which created the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission to eliminate discrimination, the agency was deluged with cases, two-thirds of which came from the South, most of them about racial discrimination.

Still, the long, bleak history of marginal jobs for African Americans has kept the Black unemployment rate consistently twice that of the white rate. This means many of the descendants of enslaved people still haven’t found a secure economic footing in our society, making it the most significant unfinished task of the Emancipation Proclamation. A 2020 report from Citi estimated that had the Black-white equity gap closed two decades ago, it would have benefited the economy by $16 trillion.

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Before he was assassinated in 1968, King was planning a campaign on behalf of the poor in Washington, D.C., where he would construct a shanty town for 2,000 people seeking economic justice, including jobs that paid a living wage. The campaign went on despite King’s death, and on Juneteenth that year, an additional 50,000 people flooded into Washington, D.C., for National Solidarity Day and to support the campaign’s efforts.

“We will place the problems of the poor at the seat of government of the wealthiest nation in the history of mankind,” King wrote in a magazine essay that was published not long after his assassination. “If the power refuses to acknowledge its debt to the poor, it will have failed to live up to its promise to insure ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’ to its citizens. If this society fails, I fear that we will learn very shortly that racism is a sickness unto death.”

Over the past few years, I’ve seen many advocates grow weary, burn out, and despair over the amount of unfinished work. Juneteenth was developed from the wisdom of former enslaved people who understood how to handle adversity. June 19 is a day to remember the successes. Like how against all odds, the Pullman porters became a significant force whose quiet innovative activism help give birth to the modern civil rights movement. It is a day for celebrating, despite imperfect outcomes, like an emancipation notice that comes two years late. And it demands we rededicate ourselves to securing for all Americans their second freedom.

Chad Dion Lassiter is the executive director of the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission. He was honored as the 2021 Social Worker of the Year by the Pennsylvania chapter of the National Association of Social Workers.