Observing Juneteenth as a national holiday affirms what we believe about our faith and our freedoms.
I was never taught about Juneteenth growing up.
I was born and raised in Philadelphia, the “cradle of liberty,” in Pennsylvania—which was the first state to end slavery with the Gradual Abolition Act of 1780. Philly was one of the major stops on the Underground Railroad, thanks to the abolitionism of the Quakers, and the home of Richard Allen’s Free African Society.
And while slavery was abolished in Pennsylvania more than 80 years before the Civil War began, I always thought of the Emancipation Proclamation as the document that ended slavery in America.
It wasn’t until years later when I heard of a woman named Ms. Opal Lee, who walked halfway across the country at 89 years old to advocate for Juneteenth to become a national holiday, that I discovered a history I had never learned in school.
Over two and a half years passed between President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and when the first of those enslaved in Texas tasted freedom: 900 more days of being separated from family and forced to work under the threat of violence and death.
But the question remains, why does Juneteenth matter to the church?
The times set aside to celebrate and reflect reveal what matters to society then, now, and in the future. For instance, Pilgrims in early America set apart “days of thanksgiving” to express gratitude to God for his providential grace—a tradition that was formalized into the national calendar in 1863 with Abraham Lincoln’s official proclamation of Thanksgiving Day “to heal the wounds of the nation” divided by war.
But an even earlier civically inspired sacred tradition was inadvertently established less than a year prior on December 31, 1862—when …