The US Senate has finally unanimously passed a bill—an extremely rare bipartisan moment—to officially mark Juneteenth as a federal holiday. The bill will now move to the majority Democratic House of Representatives floor where it is expected to pass easily. All it needs after that is President Joe Biden’s signature.
A similar move was made on his part at the start of the month, when he recognised the Tulsa massacre as an official memorial day. It appears that Biden’s administration is attempting to keep the promises it made to address systemic racism and its history in the US. Are these promises actually being kept though? We’ll get to that in a moment, but first let’s breakdown what Juneteenth is all about. It’s important.
Juneteenth, or as it’s officially known, Juneteenth National Independence Day is on 19 June—its name given by African Americans in the state of Texas. It is often misunderstood as being the day in which slavery was made illegal—this is incorrect. Although President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation officially illegalised slavery across the country in 1863, it wasn’t until 19 June 1865 (almost two years later) that enslaved African Americans of the South learnt of their emancipation.
Representative Val Demings had this to say, “When President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, America demonstrated its ability to rise to its values. But, America’s history, as we all know, is complicated. For it took two years, from 1 January 1863 to 19 June 1865, for the last group of enslaved Americans to receive official word that they were indeed free. But we know today, Madame Speaker, that our work is not yet done.”
The first recorded celebration of Juneteenth was 19 June 1986 in Texas and eventually spread to the neighbouring states. A group of formerly enslaved people pooled money together and purchased ten acres of land in Houston, Texas in 1872—this plot of land was named Emancipation Park and is still used to this day as a space for Juneteenth celebrations.
It is important to note that sadly, Juneteenth still does not represent the emancipation of all enslaved African Americans. Douglas Blackmon, an American writer and journalist, won a Pulitzer Prize for his book, Slavery by Another Name—in it, he writes that slavery in the US continued for another eighty years. We know that even now, with systems in place like the 13th amendment, mass incarceration and police brutality, slavery never really ended, it just evolved.
Although this is a moment to celebrate, others are rightfully critical of such a surface-level change. I mean wasn’t it just last month that Texas followed a long line of states to ban critical race theory in schools? How can you celebrate a day that you’re not allowed to learn anything about? That doesn’t make any sense. And it gets even worse than that. What about actual change? George Floyd’s Justice in Policing Act has yet to be passed by the US Senate—more than a year after his murder. Breonna Taylor has yet to receive any amount of actual justice. It seems the only way the Democrats can get the Republicans to vote on anything is if it doesn’t actually change the system.
So while it is important to see this a win, let’s not forget the losses.
Across 31 May and 1 June, we commemorate the hundred-year anniversary of the Tulsa massacre. This large terrorist attack against African American businesses and homes—known also as the ‘Black Wall Street’ massacre—took place across these days in 1921. President Joe Biden took an unusually powerful stance in his proclamation on 31 May, stating, “I call on the American people to reflect on the deep roots of racial terror in our nation and recommit to the work of rooting out systemic racism across our country.” Biden also proclaimed that 31 May 2021 be officially recognised as a “Day of Remembrance: 100 Years After The 1921 Tulsa Massacre.”
The US President is set to visit Tulsa today to memorialise the Black Americans that were killed and displaced in one of the most horrific racial acts in the country’s history. This makes him the first US president to do so in history. In this visit, he will supposedly announce his administration’s next steps in closing the large racial wealth gap evident in the US. There will also be a declaration regarding discrimination in the housing market. Descendents of those who suffered during the Black Wall Street massacre are also rightfully demanding reparations for both their emotional and financial losses. Now, while this does seem like steps in the right direction, it is imperative that President Biden is held to his promises he will announce for Tulsa and racial equity in the US overall.
Biden’s visit is not the only impactful event happening on 1 June. Today the city of Tulsa, Oklahoma will begin to exhume bodies from what they believe to be an unmarked mass grave in Oaklawn Cemetery linked to the 1921 attack. The Oklahoma Archeological Survey will be one of the main leaders in this excavation aiming to uncover a history that was intentionally hidden and destroyed. In order for us to grasp the magnitude of these events, we have to first understand their history.
In the decades that followed slavery, African Americans were left in emotional, psychological and financial destitude. A wealthy black landowner by the name of O.W. Gurley purchased forty acres of land (known as the Greenwood district) in 1906, believing that it would be a “significant economic opportunity.” He was right. Founded by the descendants of enslaved people, the area of Greenwood in Tulsa, Oklahoma became one of the first hubs of prosperous black entrepreneurial business. The community also provided a level of safety from the segregation Jim Crow laws of the time; many formerly enslaved black people travelled there to escape the dangerous racial terror they had experienced.
The Greenwood district eventually became an economic powerhouse that earned its popular title—Black Wall Street. The district functioned autonomously, creating its own essential services. Greenwood formed its own hospital, school system, bank and even had its independently run public transport. They also had hundreds of recreational and retail businesses. The level of luxury and prosperity under which the black people of Greenwood lived was unprecedented.
By now I’m sure we have all seen countless video examples on the internet of white women weaponising that very white womanhood against black men and boys. This is not a new phenomenon. From Emmett Till to the Exonerated Five to now, very little has changed. More than thirty years before the case of Till, an accusation against a young black man ignited the massacre.
Dick Rowland, 19, was arrested on 31 May 1921, for allegedly assaulting a young white girl—there was very little evidence to prove so. In fact, the most prevalent accepted and trusted accounts stated that he merely tripped getting into an elevator and on instinct grabbed the arm of Sarah Page, the elevator’s conductor, as he fell. A white clerk called the police and reported it as an assault. The headlines that followed in the papers were incendiary claiming that Rowland sexually assaulted Page and had torn her clothes off.
Tensions rose when a white mob called for Rowland to be lynched. Many young black men from the Greenwood district went to the courthouse where Rowland was being held to attempt to protect him from the mob. The white mob grew increasingly violent and a fight broke out. After the incident, the group of black residents retreated back to their community. The following morning—1 June 1921—a mob of white people (estimated between one to two thousand) overran Greenwood. They attacked and shot the residents without mercy. This wasn’t the worst of it. They set fires across the entire neighbourhood and used airplanes to drop bombs. With an estimate of 300 deaths, 35 housing blocks demolished, 200 million (in today’s currency) lost, Black Wall Street was destroyed.
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It is best to leave the answer to this question to the survivors and their descendents. Viola Fletcher, 107, was seven years old at the time of the Tulsa massacre. In a gut-wrenching statement before the House Judiciary subcommittee on 19 May 2021, Fletcher stated “I am seeking justice.”
“I will never forget the violence of the white mob. I still see Black men being shot, Black bodies lying in the street. I still smell smoke and see fire. I still see Black businesses being burned. I still hear airplanes flying overhead. I hear the screams. I have lived through the massacre everyday.”
While Biden’s potential promises create some hope of the future we must remember that it took a hundred years for the US to even acknowledge it. Let’s hope it doesn’t take another hundred for actual change. In the meantime, make the switch and try to buy from black-owned businesses. It’s the least you can do.