The State Of California: Celebrating Juneteenth

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Friday is June 19, which has been celebrated for years among black Americans as "Juneteenth," a holiday which is suddenly gaining a lot more attention.

Many states and corporations are declaring the day a holiday for the first time, but it will also be a day of protest around the Bay Area, as calls for racial equality and police reform continue.

Of course, it was also the day that President Donald Trump chose for his coming out party, his first campaign rally since the coronavirus pandemic forced the presidential contest to go virtual, until he was prevailed upon to change it to Saturday, June 20. It will still be held in Tulsa, site of one of the worst race massacres in American history, the Black Wall Street slaughter of 1921.

So now, in what many are calling a year of reckoning for systemic racism, we are on the eve of Juneteenth, full of new significance for so many Americans.

For more, we were joined USC Gould School of Law Professor of Law and History Ariela Gross on KCBS Radio’s "The State Of California." She got both her JD and a PhD in history at Stanford, where she was a fellow. She specializes in the history of race and slavery in the United States. Her books include "Becoming Free, Becoming Black" and "What Blood Won’t Tell: A History of Race On Trial in America."

What are your thoughts on how the White House handled President Trump’s rally in Tulsa? Are you surprised his staff had not heard of Juneteenth?

I do believe it’s possible that they didn’t know about Juneteenth. This is an administration that has shown breathtaking ignorance about the African American experience, African American history. It wouldn’t surprised me at all that a holiday that has been celebrated by African Americans for 155 years would have escaped the attention of President Trump or his administration.

What do people need to know about Juneteenth?

It originally came out of Texas. It was the day that Union troops arrived in Texas, June 19, 1865 and declared the end of slavery in Texas. As many people know, slavery didn’t end all at once. The Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 only emancipated enslaved people in parts of the Confederacy that were still under Confederate control, not under Union control. For many people, it wasn’t until the 13th Amendment that emancipation was really complete. What I’d emphasize is that enslaved people claimed their freedom as soon as they heard the news of the Union army coming near. Thousands of people escaped to Union lines, they became known as contraband, like stolen property, and eventually became Union soldiers who turned the tide against the Confederacy. I think what Juneteenth celebrates is that claiming and that seizing of freedom by African Americans.

Why is the conversation about race so tough 155 years later?

We are seeing a national, even an international, reckoning right now with a history that goes back hundreds of years. I think what we saw in the last few weeks, the terrible procession of names of black men and women murdered by police officers, that was a very old story. The uprising around the world, the massive protests that are in every state in the nation and around the world, that’s pretty new actually. There’s such a broad, multiracial movement of people who recognize that this goes deeper than unfortunately one or two bad apples. That this is something the country has to reckon with.

Has there been anything in recent history we can compare to this?

There’s something new and unprecedented I hope about this. We, as historians, are wondering if this is 1968 or 1970. We’ve certainly had moments in which historians have referred to as the Second Reconstruction, the Civil Rights Movement that began in the 1960s to claim the meaning and finish the business of the first Reconstruction and the promise of equality for all. That was certainly a multiracial movement as well. There were white college students who went down to Mississippi for Freedom Summer, there was a lot of interracial collaboration happening. At the same time, I don’t think we saw this breadth of participation. We certainly haven’t in the last few years, this kind of sustained attention over weeks. Part of that is due to a movement, the Black Lives Matter movement, that had been laying the groundwork for several years. They’ve been out there calling attention to these cases and persisting year after year. Finally, people abroad or a group of people are paying attention.