On June 19, 1865 –150 years ago this Friday – Union soldiers commanded by Major General Gordon Granger landed at Galveston, Texas and gave the residents some stunning news: The Civil War was over, the North had won, and the slaves were free.
The whites listened in sullen silence. The blacks broke out in joyous demonstrations.
Gen. Granger's proclamation said, "The connection heretofore existing between (former masters and slaves) becomes that between employer and free laborer," but many freedmen didn't wait for their old masters to offer them a job. Even with nowhere to go, they felt that leaving the plantation would be their first step towards freedom.
But they and their descendants returned to Galveston every June 19, which they nicknamed "Juneteenth," to celebrate the moment they first heard the glorious news. And many African Americans still observe Juneteenth to this day to celebrate family and freedom – two things that go hand in hand, considering that slave families were in constant danger of being split up whenever the master felt like selling some of them off.
We have all kinds of national holidays, but we have never established one that deals directly with the most important thing in our history: slavery, whose toxic residue still poisons the body politic.
We sort of hint at it with Martin Luther King Day, but that focuses on events that happened 100 years after slavery was abolished.
It's high time we corrected that oversight. I say next June 19 should be a national holiday. And it should be on June 19, too, not the closest Monday. Moving our holidays to the closest Monday, just so we can have more three-day weekends, totally misses the purpose.
Holidays are not created to make it more convenient for us to enjoy ourselves. They're supposed to be inconvenient. That's the whole point: We disrupt our already busy lives because the person or event we're observing is that important.
At the rate we're going, in 20 years Independence Day will be celebrated the first Monday in July, and Christmas will be celebrated the last Monday in December.
While I'm at it, there are a few other dates I think should be national holidays, too:
June 6 (D-Day, to honor the G.I.'s who fought in Europe),
December 7 (Pearl Harbor Day, to honor those who fought in the Pacific),
November 22 (JFK's assassination, and I'm stunned that I have to explain this to younger readers),
And, of course, September 11.
But if you'll let me have these holidays, there's one I'll gladly give back: President's Day. What kind of holiday is that? Does it mean we should honor bozos like Millard Fillmore or James Buchanan or Andrew Johnson?
It's an amalgamation of two very worthy former holidays: Washington's Birthday, February 22, and Lincoln's Birthday, February 12. (Did you know Lincoln and Charles Darwin, arguably the two most important people of the 19th Century, were born on the same day in 1809?)
Washington won our independence and then shocked everyone by retiring instead of making himself a military dictator. Lincoln preserved the Union and freed the slaves. Both guys deserve their own days. So let's give it to them and return Millard, James and Andy to the obscurity they so richly deserve.
Happy Juneteenth, everybody!