By Faith Weekly, Community Development Advisor—Neighborhoods and Housing, Institute for Economic Equity
The Institute for Economic Equity promotes a more equitable economy for households and communities in the St. Louis Fed’s District and beyond. It works to support an economy that works for all, regardless of race or ethnicity, gender or where they live.
This year marks the 156th anniversary of Juneteenth, the annual celebration of emancipation from slavery in the United States. On June 19, 1865, Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger issued an order in Galveston, Texas, informing the state’s residents of the emancipation—more than two years after President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. (See box for the text of the order.) One year later, former slaves of Texas chose June 19, 1866, for the first Juneteenth celebration.
Historians are unable to confirm why it took two and a half years for Granger’s declaration of freedom to be delivered—a fact that is confusing and disturbing to this day. Even after Granger’s announcement, the end of slavery was not immediate for all. “On plantations, masters had to decide when and how to announce the news—or wait for a government agent to arrive—and it was not uncommon for them to delay until after the harvest,” Henry Louis Gates Jr. wrote in a blog post republished on PBS.org. Gates is director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University.
Importantly, Granger could have simply announced to the slaves that they were all free. Instead, he declared: “This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves…” More than likely this raised the expectations of the formerly enslaved people to believe that freedom would yield them the promise of a much better life.
Throughout the history of America, access to programs and policies with the potential to increase economic opportunity for Black Americans has intentionally been withheld, resulting in inequities in housing, education, voting, health and employment.
In the 1930s, for example, the federal government created a new program to help millions of Americans become homeowners, as an Aug. 23, 2017, article in Bridges explained. “The Home Owners’ Loan Corp. (HOLC) was also attempting to mitigate risk for the financial institutions that would help deploy billions of dollars in mortgage capital across the country,” the article said.
However, the socioeconomic characteristics of a neighborhood were a much bigger factor in determining the value of the house, rather than the physical characteristics, according to the article, “Redlining Louisville Project: Early Lessons Learned.” This resulted in redlining, a practice of systematically excluding Black neighborhoods by deeming them financially riskier. The practice, which has affected housing, development, disinvestment and lending patterns throughout the U.S., continued well into the 1970s.
The legacy of redlining manifests even today through segregation, devaluation and disinvestment in many Black neighborhoods and a low Black homeownership rate.
Juneteenth (“June” plus “nineteenth”) became an official state holiday in Texas on Jan. 1, 1980, through the efforts of Al Edwards, a Black state legislator, according to a history on Juneteenth.com. It is also known by other names, such as Freedom Day and Jubilee Day. Editor’s Note: June 19 became a federal holiday—Juneteenth National Independence Day—on June 17, 2021, the day after this blog post was published.
Gates’ blog post on PBS.org, “What Is Juneteenth?” quotes Al Edwards in his speech to commemorate Juneteenth as a public holiday.
“Every year, we must remind successive generations that this event triggered a series of events that one by one defines the challenges and responsibilities of successive generations,” Edwards said, according to the blog post. “That’s why we need this holiday.”
Last year, our country experienced converging economic and public health crises that exposed and exacerbated racial inequities, while a historic movement for social justice highlighted the tragic human costs of systemic racism.
Recovery efforts have launched around the country that, if deployed with a lens for equity, have the potential to address the significant challenges marginalized communities and people of color have experienced. Juneteenth indeed reminds us of the responsibility we share to pursue equitable outcomes for populations today, as well as for future generations.
1Editor’s Note: June 19 became a federal holiday—Juneteenth National Independence Day—on June 17, 2021, the day after this blog post was published.