J. Pharoah Doss: Events before Juneteenth that are worthy of recognition

by J. Pharoah Doss, For New Pittsburgh Courier

Right before Juneteenth was made a federal holiday last year, a Forbes columnist wrote, “On June 19, 1865, Major General Gordon Granger informed the people of Texas that all enslaved people were free, thus establishing the basis for the holiday known as Juneteenth. Many people have taken to Twitter to express frustration that they didn’t learn about Juneteenth in school.”

One frustrated person tweeted that Black history is severely lacking in public schools, and Juneteenth needs to be taught.

The fact that previous history courses neglected to cover Juneteenth is not an indication that Black history is lacking in public education. Since the 1970s, history curriculums have undergone massive transformations and become more multicultural with each passing decade.

The initial rhetorical question—Why didn’t we learn this in school?—wants us to assume there was a concerted effort to suppress the significance of Juneteenth. Since the entire past can’t be recorded in textbooks, events that shaped or altered the trajectory of the nation take precedence over popular events that remained in the collective or cultural memory. The real question is: Did the actual event on June 19, 1865, shape or alter the nation, or was the date remembered for what it represented?

If Juneteenth is mere symbolism, that’s why it wasn’t covered in textbooks.

The debates over whether new states would be free or slave, southern succession, the battle of Gettysburg, and the passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments took precedence over General Granger informing slaves in Texas the Civil war was over. (That doesn’t mean Juneteenth shouldn’t be celebrated for what it represents.)

Apparently, those that were demanding for Juneteenth to be taught in schools were simultaneously demanding for Juneteenth to be treated as an event of historical significance.

In their mind, Juneteenth was the grand finale of the abolitionist cause, and from that ideological perspective, a greater significance must be added to the event. With that said, the grand finale shouldn’t overshadow other acts that played a significant role in the long process to abolish slavery.

Here are a few events that are deserving of some recognition. (Even though they can be viewed as merely symbolic.)

In 1777 Vermont was the first state that included wording in its constitution to abolish slavery. Of course, complete emancipation didn’t follow until the enforcement of the policy, but the wording itself set the tone for future legislation in other states to imitate.

In 1780, Pennsylvania passed the Gradual Abolition Act. This law was the first of its kind in the United States. Every child born to an enslaved mother was free after that date. However, those that were free-born were indentured servants. They weren’t allowed to exercise their free status until after the age of 28.

In 1783 the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts declared slavery incompatible with the constitution of the commonwealth. This took place after a series of trials known as “The Quock Walker Case” in which a Black man sued his master over a broken promise. Walker was promised freedom at the age of 25. Once again, this legal action didn’t free all the slaves in the commonwealth, but owning slaves was no longer legally protected. What this decision established for jurisprudence should not be underestimated.

These events are unique because they took place between 1776 and 1787.

The colonist declared independence from Britain in 1776, but the current U.S. Constitution wasn’t drafted until 1787. That means Vermont, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts were independent actors with no higher authority. No foreign ruler or federal government influenced their decisions. Each entity decided to answer to higher principles and make legal efforts to abolish an inhumane practice that has been a blight on humanity since the dawn of civilization.

If there’s any truth to the saying, it’s the thought that counts.

Then these events are worthy of some recognition.


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