Editorial: Happy Independence Days, America

Linked by history and promise, Juneteenth and the Fourth of July should be celebrated together.

Junelle Lewis (right), daughter Tamara Grigsby and son Jayden Hill sing “Lift Every Voice and Sing” during Monroe’s Juneteenth celebration on Saturday, June 18. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Junelle Lewis (right), daughter Tamara Grigsby and son Jayden Hill sing “Lift Every Voice and Sing” during Monroe’s Juneteenth celebration on Saturday, June 18. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

By The Herald Editorial Board

Today, of course, is the Fourth of July. We mark the 246th such commemoration and have over those years — as John Adams wrote his wife on July 3, 1776 — solemnized it “with Pomp and Parade … Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this time forward forever more.”

But we now also have the benefit of a second independence day to celebrate, one a little more than two weeks prior, that while now only federally recognized for the last two years, stretches back 157 years to June 19th, 1865. That’s the day when a U.S. Army major general arrived in Galveston, Texas, at the conclusion of the Civil War to proclaim and enforce President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, ending slavery, signed more than two years prior.

The two holidays recently were the focus of a panel discussion, June 29 at Edmonds Center for the Arts, called “Bridging the Gap: A Community Conversation on Juneteenth and the Fourth of July.” The full 90-minute conversation is available to watch on YouTube, but to mark both holidays, we share some excerpts here.

Organized by Edmonds resident Alicia Crank, the panel discussion included Bianca Dang, an assistant professor of U.S. history and African American studies at the University of Washington; DeLon Lewis, a STEM 101 instructor and program specialist with Everett Community College’s Diversity and Equity Center; Michelle Osborne, a former prosecutor and civil trial attorney who has worked with nonprofit agencies on racial equity and social justice issues; Paul Pitre, chancellor of Washington State University-Everett, and Steven Nelson, a diversity, equity and inclusion specialist with Alaska Air Group. The forum was moderated by Crank, who is the executive director of Seattle CityClub, and Herald Opinion Editor Jon Bauer.

“What’s interesting about Juneteenth in this longer history of freedom celebrations throughout the United States is that it’s a holiday that is regionally bringing people together,” said Bianca Dang, in providing background about Juneteenth and its celebration.

Dang explained that beyond Juneteenth, there were similar celebrations at the news of the end of slavery at different times across the hemisphere.

“Black freedom was intertwined throughout the century and into today, so all of these multiple emancipation movements helps us see that freedom was not and is not a stagnant process in the United States,” Dang said.

“This Independence Day, this signing of the Declaration of Independence did not mean freedom for everyone in the United States,” she said. “Freedom across decades, has been fought for and people have made claims to it and it has been contested,” she said.

“These two dates help us see that American freedom has historically been constricted by one’s race and gender, class, age, sexuality,” said Dang. “Having this federally recognized holiday is a way for all people in this country to understand that this struggle for freedom did not occur and did not end on July 4th, 1776. That it has continued to be pursued, and Black folks have been at the forefront of this.”

For Steven Nelson, who grew up in Texas where Juneteenth was taught in schools, it was still a history that often glossed over the less-glorious truths of slavery in that state. His understanding changed after a friend invited him to his family’s Juneteenth barbecue.

“And his grandmother pulls me aside and asks me about what I know about Juneteenth,” Nelson said. “And of course I’m just like, you know, ‘Texas ended slavery on that day.’ And to say that she used that as a teaching moment for us is an understatement.”

That Black grandmother made clear for him that slavery had continued in Texas for two and a half years after Lincoln’s proclamation had been signed.

“One thing she said before my friend’s mom told her to leave me alone was that, ‘You know, there still truly isn’t freedom,” he said.

DeLon Lewis asked the audience to consider Northwest history; even as the region was never sullied with slavery, it still had its own struggles and history with racial issues, noting that Black pioneer George Washington Bush had to come north to Washington state because he couldn’t buy land in Oregon.

“I want to keep in the frame that people always talk about the South, and the East and the North, but they don’t necessarily talk about the Northwest when we talk about racial issues. So keep in mind that while all this is happening, people over here and still fighting to even own land,” Lewis said.

Michelle Osborne said she sees the Declaration of Independence as a statement of aspiration.

“It’s not a static document; it’s dynamic. We are going to improve as a country in a way that the Founding Fathers couldn’t even have imagined.”

Osborne said she sees Juneteenth as an answer to Frederick Douglas, the former slave and abolitionist, who addressed the incompleteness of Independence Day in his 1852 speech, “What to the Slave, Is the Fourth of July.”

“And it asks all the questions we’re still asking today: Are Black people fully a part of the United States? Are they fully a part of the rights the rest of us enjoy?” she said.

“So, on the Fourth of July for many years I’ve been thinking a lot of those thoughts: Are we where we were supposed to be as a country if we use the Declaration of Independence as one of our evolutionary documents.”

Nelson, considering the dual independence days, challenged the audience to use both holidays to learn and improve the nation.

“What part are you playing to help us get to where we need to be?” he asked. “Start with knowing that the United States is not a bad country, but like all countries it’s growing and changing and it’s progressing, but get out of that mythological country that we’re protecting and that mythological history that doesn’t really exist.

“Think about what you are doing to be that change, because we need to be part of that,” he said.

Both holidays, at their most basic, speak to freedom, said Paul Pitre.

“What’s important about both of those dates, they’re definitely celebrations, but at the core what both of those are about is freedom in the United States of America, and those two dates definitely have a connection and they have importance to our country,” he said.

Dang noted that each of the two holidays relies on the other.

“It’s important for people think about why the Fourth of July is not enough. Why thinking about that as an independence day is kind of a misnomer, that it was independence for some but not for all.

“We need to think about what was built on the enslavement and the subjugation of Black folks and Indigenous folks in the United States … and what we want to make of the country going forward.”

With each holiday so closely tied to the other, in their history and in their promise, what’s needed is a celebration that closely links them, bridges the 16 days between them.

“We were listening to a Juneteenth celebration on the car radio,” Lewis said, “and someone mentioned that we should just have — like we have the 12 days of Christmas — we should celebrate from Juneteenth to the Fourth of July and we just have a two-week long celebration.”

Happy Independence Days.

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