Juneteenth commemorates June 19, 1865, when Union soldiers finally arrived in Galveston, Texas, with urgent news. The Civil War had ended, and the enslaved people were freed. This was one of the last groups of enslaved people to receive the news of the Emancipation Proclamation two years earlier and the Southern surrender which had taken place two months earlier.
That’s the oft-told history, and that version makes Juneteenth primarily an African American celebration of the end of slavery.
But there’s the hidden history that complicates this view.
Throughout slavery, especially as the abolitionist movement gained supporters in the 1830s, Southern elites were concerned that poor white people might connect their impoverished condition with slavery and join abolitionists. The threat was plausible given that most white people were poor. By the 1860s, of the eight million white people in the United States, only one-tenth of 1% (0.1%) of enslavers held more than 100 slaves — about 50,000 people.
Poor white people eked out a financially precarious existence in an economic system stacked against them. They farmed land they didn’t own and served as America’s first gig workforce — working odd jobs when needed. Some of the most dangerous jobs were saved for poor white people, especially the Irish, because their death or harm would not cost business owners. As the temporary and expendable labor of the day, there was little chance of a poor white person ascending to the aristocracy or even into the middle class. The wealth gap between landless white people and the landed gentry was extreme.
The planter aristocracy recognized the danger hordes of malcontents in their midst could foment, especially if poor white people linked arms with the large number of enslaved people. However, they responded not with better working conditions and higher wages for white people. Instead, they made a pro-slavery argument to people for whom slavery had never been in their best economic interest.
The planters argued for what we now call white supremacy.
Imagine: The shared experience of these two disrespected groups could have contributed to the dismantling of systemic racism.
Instead, slavery ended as the country was moving from an agriculturally based economy into an industrialized behemoth, and many of those jobs went to the formerly destitute white men and their descendants who continued to link their economic success to their whiteness. In turn, they carried on the white supremacy playbook and policed the race line to keep Black, brown, and Indigenous people of color out of jobs, out of neighborhoods, out of educational facilities.
This position touched off a new battle of civil rights that continues today.
A year after George Floyd’s murder, we are still trying to create a meaningful racial reckoning.
We must cease to make myth of our history, grabbing at a shallow but comfortable understanding instead of grappling with complex but difficult issues.
Juneteenth represents the liberation for the destitute white person from an economic system stacked against them as well as the enslaved Black person.
Yet, some of the descendants of those dispossessed white farmers rail against using the critical race theory lens, which looks at social issues using a racial framework to get a deeper understanding, in their schools. In doing so, they are not only refusing to hear multiple viewpoints but also silencing the voices and pain of their own forebears which taught that racist policies ill serve us all.
Now that the U.S. Senate has just voted to make Juneteenth a federal holiday, it’s important that everyone understand the history of Juneteenth and celebrate it. For the sake of our country, which is being torn asunder by divisiveness, and to make the American creed of equality for all more than hollow words, we do not want the news to arrive too late about the value in our linked stories.
Chad Dion Lassiter is the executive director of the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission.