Alum of Goshen College and Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary reflects on Juneteenth: A history


by Wilma A. Bailey, Ph.D. Originally published by Menno Snapshots, Mennonite Church USA

This blog post was written in honor of Juneteenth, June 19.

Wilma A. Bailey, Ph.D., is a retired pastor and professor. She was the first Black woman to be licensed for ministry by Indiana-Michigan Conference and served as the assistant pastor of Grace Chapel Mennonite Church in Saginaw, Michigan; the summer pastor at Lee Heights Community Church in Cleveland, Ohio; and the assistant director of the Black and Urban Leadership Program at Goshen College. Dr. Bailey earned a Master of Divinity from Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Indiana, and both a Master of Arts and Ph.D. from Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. She attends Shalom Mennonite Church in Indianapolis, Indiana. Dr. Bailey was a 2023 Hope for the Future honoree.

In the middle of the Civil War, on the first of January 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued an Executive Order titled Proclamation 95, which became known as the Emancipation Proclamation. It read, in part, that as of that date, “all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free …”

In June of 2021, President Biden signed a document that had been passed in the House and Senate, proclaiming the 19th of June as a federal holiday, in celebration of the end of slavery. That date was chosen, because that was the date in 1865 when the enslaved people of Galveston, Texas, learned that they had been legally freed.

There was only one problem. The Emancipation Proclamation did not free any enslaved person. Notice the language: “all persons held as slaves within any State … the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States …” The rebelling states did not recognize Lincoln as an authority over them. They had formed their own separate country, with their own president. Moreover, Lincoln did not free the enslaved people in the slave-holding states where he had control: Maryland, Kentucky, Missouri and Delaware.

Sometime after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, in 1863, Colonel James Tompkins of Edgefield County, South Carolina, wrote his last will and testament. In it, he bequeathed to his “beloved wife Huldah … the following negro Slaves together with the future increase of the females … Bose and his wife Sarah and their children …” Bose and Sarah were my great great grandparents. Notice, too, that Colonel James intended me to be enslaved to his descendants.

The 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution, passed in 1865, freed all enslaved people and established their right to citizenship at birth, with equal rights as guaranteed to others in the Constitution — sort of. One exception was that people could be enslaved in the penal system. And that was overly applied to Black people well into the 20th century.

And the rights of free citizenship were and continue to be denied by laws that restrict and make it hard to vote in areas with large low-income African American populations — practices that block access to quality educational opportunities, health care, healthy food, housing and jobs — and by people who terrorize Black communities to keep them in line.

Juneteenth formerly was a holiday celebrated only in Texas. The meaning of Juneteenth has been expanded to commemorate the freeing of all enslaved people in the United States. It also recognizes that that was a process and not a one-time event. The sharecropping system kept some formerly enslaved people tied to the very same plantations from which they had been technically freed. Black men were incarcerated for minor infractions, such as standing idly on a street corner or playing an illegal gambling game, so that the exception to enslavement in the 13th Amendment could be invoked. The Supreme Court, in the 1896 Plessy vs. Ferguson decision, legalized the practice of segregation, a practice that another Supreme Court, in 1954, deemed to create by its very nature inequalities. One hundred years after the 13th Amendment became law, Black people were still fighting for the right to eat in any restaurant or use a restroom in a bus station or swim in a public swimming pool or enter an amusement park. In the 21st century, inequities continue.

By joining in the celebration of Juneteenth, people admit that this country was, in part, built on the backs of enslaved people.

To be sure, progress has been made. But gaps need to be filled in and the promise of freedom and equality, as stated in the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments must be made a reality.

Christians need look no further than Galatians 3:26-28: “[F]or in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (RSV). The metaphor “sons” reflects the social structure of ancient patriarchal times. It indicates that everyone will be on the same elevated level as a son and heir. Everyone who is in Christ has the same elevated status and privilege. Let the church say, “Amen!”

The views and opinions expressed in this blog belong to the author and are not intended to represent the views of the MC USA Executive Board or staff.

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