Falmouth celebrated Juneteenth this year with two events sponsored by the Woods Hole Diversity Advisory Committee, aimed at increasingly education and understanding about the holiday.
The celebration kicked off a few days earlier, last Saturday, June 15, in Peg Noonan Park with an African drum circle led by Tara Murphy of Cape Cod African Dance and Drum. On Wednesday, the date of the holiday, Oak Bluffs resident Ewell Hopkins delivered a lecture co-sponsored by No Place for Hate — Falmouth titled “Gleaning insight from the story of Juneteenth – The Paradox Continues.” Between June 1 and 19, the Falmouth Public Library offered a display of books related to Juneteenth.
Juneteenth is a holiday that commemorates the end of slavery in the United States. It is a combination of “June” and “Nineteenth” in reference to June 19, 1865, when Union soldiers led by Major General Gordon Granger entered Galveston, Texas, with a general order, informing the people of Texas that the Civil War had ended and enslaved African Americans were free. Juneteenth is recognized in 46 states and the District of Columbia.
At the start of his lecture Wednesday, Mr. Hopkins read the general order issued on the day of the holiday’s namesake. Mr. Hopkins is part of the third generation in his family to be free from slavery. About 40 lecture attendees listened in Redfield Auditorium at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.
“The people of Texas are informed that in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and free laborer,” he read.
“Juneteenth is important,” Mr. Hopkins told the attendees, “but we have to understand what it’s not.”
It was not the legal end of slavery in the United States. Rather, June 19, 1865, was the date the Union Army announced the end of slavery in Texas, the last remaining stronghold for slave owners in the United States, Mr. Hopkins said.
President Abraham Lincoln issued the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation in September 1862. It took effect January 1, 1863. Starting in 1862, slave owners in states like Mississippi and Louisiana forcibly migrated thousands of slaves to Texas, beyond the Union Army’s reach, he said.
“What happened on June 19 was the announcement of what happened two and a half years earlier,” Mr. Hopkins explained.
Mr. Hopkins noted that this was part of the reason that some people advocate against celebrating Juneteenth as a commemoration of emancipation. “What happened was the suppression of information was lifted [for] a group of people who were artificially suppressed. That’s worth celebrating, but I don’t know if I celebrate it more than when the United States of America actually said slavery is illegal. That kind of resonates more with me,” Mr. Hopkins said. He offered multiple possible dates that could be used to nationally commemorate the end of slavery, such as the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation or the ratification of the 13th Amendment.
In Mr. Hopkins’s lecture, he discussed the role that suppression of information played in the history of Juneteenth. “We can’t just say this was the day we abolished slavery or this was the day the black person became free, because none of that’s true. It’s the day that the last suppression of the Confederacy was formally blown open.”
Information is still suppressed in the US, Mr. Hopkins said, “We have structurally limited access to information on so many levels, right in plain sight.”
Mr. Hopkins advocated for increased means of access to public records and local laws. The dissemination of information is critical to exposing people to the power they already have to participate in government and change laws, Mr. Hopkins explained. Juneteenth is a reminder to “question the laws that are in place, how they’re being supported or enforced, and what is the reality on the ground,” Mr. Hopkins said.
Mr. Hopkins’s lecture was followed by a question and answer session. Members of the audience discussed education, white-washing history, and reparations with Mr. Hopkins. Attendees also asked him about research techniques. Mr. Hopkins referenced the historians, authors and organizations he used to collect information on Juneteenth like Henry Louis Gates Jr., Melvin B. Miller, and the Zinn Education Project.