The U.S. has been officially celebrating Independence Day on July 4th since 1870. But on June 15, 2021, The Senate unanimously passed S. 475, a bill creating a second federal independence day—Juneteenth—signed into law by President Biden on June 17, 2021.
Long celebrated by African Americans, Juneteenth, a blend of June and 19th, commemorates and celebrates the end of slavery in America. Although Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on September 22, 1862, and it became effective on January 1,1863, freedom didn’t reach the 250,000 enslaved people in Galveston, Texas until two years later, when Union troops, led by Army General Gordon Granger, arrived with the order of freedom on June 19, 1865. One year later, former slaves celebrated their freedom with “Jubilee Day,” which eventually morphed into Juneteenth.
Because some Southern slave owners refused to comply with the Emancipation Proclamation, not all slaves were truly freed by Juneteenth. And, tragically, during the Reconstruction era, more than 2,000 former slaves were lynched in acts of racial terror, with one African American being murdered about every other day.
In addition, the Emancipation Proclamation applied only to states that had seceded. It wasn’t until the 13th Amendment was adopted into the Constitution on December 6, 1865, that slavery was abolished by law everywhere in the U.S.
The not-so-distant past
It’s easy to think of slavery as an institution from the distant past, yet the last living slave, Sylvester Magee, died in 1971, just 50 years ago, and the last survivor of the Atlantic Slave Trade, a woman named Roshi, nee Sally Smith, died in 1937, 84 years ago.
Juneteenth, therefore, represents the symbolic end to slavery, the call to social justice, the continued struggle for freedom, and the promise that African Americans will be treated equally as citizens of the United States. This call for equality has been fueled over the last year by the recognition that systemic racism still pervades U.S. culture. Numerous killings of African Americans by the police, including the 2020 murders of George Floyd by Minneapolis police and of Breonna Taylor by plainclothes officers in Louisville, Kentucky, and new laws limiting voting access have galvanized the African American community and their allies, as they are no longer willing to be silent in the face of injustice.
An unfortunate history of unequal access to treatment and systemic inequality in healthcare
One persistent injustice faced by African Americans is the racial disparity in healthcare, sometimes referred to as medical apartheid. Historical records dating back to 1721 reveal that African Americans have been continually subjected to biomedical research without their consent, first in the form of a primitive smallpox inoculation, and again in 1932, when 600 Black men from Macon County, Alabama were subjected to the Tuskegee scientific experiment on syphilis. In the 20th century more than 60,000 African Americans and others deemed biologically inferior to whites were subjected to forced sterilization based on the theory of eugenics, which lauds selective breeding based on so-called desirable traits.
Even in the 21st century, African Americans face disparity in medical care. For example, implicit bias among medical personnel can lead to stereotyping Black patients, not taking complaints seriously, and medical misdiagnosis. For example, a Johns Hopkins study revealed that minority stroke patients were 20-30% more likely to be misdiagnosed. Further research shows that African American mothers are more likely than white mothers to experience all forms of pregnancy loss and to die of pregnancy-related complications. In addition, African American babies are more likely to be stillborn than white babies.
At Schochor and Staton, P.A., our skilled, knowledgeable Maryland malpractice attorneys fight for the rights of patients victimized by medical errors and neglect.
Celebrating freedom with a Juneteenth holiday
The idea for an official Juneteenth holiday was born in San Francisco in 1945, when Wesley Johnson, a migrant from Texas, introduced the celebration to the Black community. Appropriately, in 1980 Texas became the first state to observe Juneteenth, and today 49 states and Washington D.C. recognize the holiday, with South Dakota as the lone holdout.
In 1997, activist “Boston Ben” Haith and others, along with illustrator Lisa Jeanne Graf created the first Juneteenth flag. Every symbol on the flag represents an ideal embodied by Juneteenth: the star and the burst surrounding it stand for Texas and the birth of its new star; the arc symbolizes new horizons and opportunities for African Americans; and the red, white and blue colors of the flag remind us that African Americans are legal American citizens, entitled to all the rights laid out in The Constitution.
Americans all across the country are now poised to celebrate Juneteenth with family gatherings, barbecues, music, dance, and parades—and large-scale celebrations are being held in Las Vegas, Chicago, Washington D.C., and Galveston.
With the election of Kamala Harris, the first female and first Black and South Asian as Vice President, Michael Regan as the first Black man to lead the E.P.A, and Linda Thomas-Greenfield as the Assistant Secretary, Bureau of African Affairs, the promise of Juneteenth is rapidly unfolding right before our eyes.
Recognizing Juneteenth as the first federal holiday added since 1983, when Martin Luther King Day became a federal holiday, demonstrates America’s commitment to freedom, the core value of the United States. Juneteenth is an important historical landmark, a celebration of freedom for all, African Americans and allies alike. June 17, 2021 is the day that will go down in history as giving Juneteenth the national recognition it so richly deserves.
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