The importance of Juneteenth

In his biweekly message to campus, President Armacost calls attention to Juneteenth

A museum honoring Harriet Tubman, a Black woman who escaped slavery and became an abolitionist, held its grand opening in Cape May, N.J., on June 19, 2021 — Juneteenth.

Editor’s note: UND President Andy Armacost sent the following letter to the UND campus community on Friday, June 18, the day before Juneteenth.

This week, I want to call attention to Juneteenth – Saturday, June 19th – a date many consider our second Independence Day because of its historical significance to the end of slavery in the United States. Congress voted on Wednesday to make Juneteenth the 12th federal holiday and President Joe Biden signed the bill on Thursday. During the last session of the North Dakota Legislature, both houses overwhelmingly passed a bill recognizing Juneteenth as a holiday.

Rep. Austin Schauer called Juneteenth an important milestone in our country’s history and a goodwill step toward becoming a nation where we respect each other. In light of recent and long-term racial tensions in our country, it’s important for our University community and North Dakotans to observe and reflect on the meaning of Juneteenth, and understand the importance of this day for Black Americans. It emphasizes the necessity for continuing our efforts to improve diversity, equity, and inclusion, not only at UND, but also around the nation.

On April 12, 1861, the first shots of the U.S. Civil War were fired at Fort Sumter, S.C., as eleven Confederate states in the south seceded from the Union with slavery as the central issue. During the next four years, 10,000 battles and engagements were fought from Vermont to the New Mexico territory, resulting in an estimated 625,000 lives lost. The Civil War remains the costliest war in American history.

There are a number of key dates connected to the end of slavery in America, beginning in 1860 with the election of Abraham Lincoln, a pro-abolitionist president. Lincoln issued the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation to free enslaved people in the Confederate states on Sept. 22, 1862, but it didn’t take effect until Jan. 1, 1863. Although the last major Confederate army surrendered on April 9, 1865, the final battle of the war was fought in Texas on May 13, 1865.

Texas became a key focus at war’s end because as the confederacy collapsed, thousands of enslaved people were moved into the state to avoid being set free by the advancing Union armies. It wasn’t until Union general Gordon Granger and his troops entered Texas that the last slaves – an estimated 250,000 – were freed. On June 19, 1865, Granger issued his famous order in Galveston Bay, which proclaimed “an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves.”  The day became known as Juneteenth and has gained greater significance over time.

This came after President Lincoln had been assassinated and before the 13th Amendment officially abolishing slavery was ratified by the states on Dec. 6, 1865. As we now know, even four long years of war and official acts to end of slavery didn’t bring about the end of racial segregation and discrimination against African Americans.

Harriet Tubman, a Black woman who experienced the brutality and inhumanity of slavery, described her feelings and her wishes after she at last gained freedom: “I had crossed the line. I was free; but there was no one to welcome me to the land of freedom. I was a stranger in a strange land; and my home after all, was down in Maryland; because my father, my mother, my brothers, and sisters, and friends were there. But I was free, and they should be free.”

UND President Andy Armacost. UND archive photo.

My purpose here isn’t to give a complete history lesson, but to illustrate how long and how difficult it has been for our nation to deal with racial issues and heal racial divides. Recent events serve as indicators that we still have a long way to go. As educators, as administrators, and as students of higher education, we have a duty and a responsibility to help make our UND campus and our communities places where people of all races are treated with dignity and respect.

Because we should embrace any opportunity to learn, I’ll recommend a book: “The Cause of Freedom: A Concise History of African Americans” by Jonathan Holloway, the president of Rutgers University. It’s a great book from which we can learn about the often-untold important events and persons in our nation’s history.

I hope we can all take a moment tomorrow on Juneteenth to reflect on the struggles Black Americans have faced, the trials they’ve endured, and the accomplishments they’ve made and to consider what each of us can do to create a more just society and a more welcoming environment.

With respect,

Andrew Armacost