Celebrating Juneteenth and the End of Chattel Slavery

Juneteenth as the end of chattel slavery

Today we celebrate Juneteenth—a paramount day commemorating the emancipation of Black people from chattel slavery. On June 19, 1865, enslaved people in Texas finally learned of their liberation from captivity two years after Abraham Lincoln signed the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation. The news of freedom could have taken as long as it did to reach Texas because politicians intentionally withheld the information or Southern white people physically delayed or assaulted the messenger. Whatever the reason, Black people were still held in bondage in Texas despite the announcement of their abolition years prior. Juneteenth recognizes the end of chattel slavery, but many enslaved people were still held as captives by slave owners even when the definition of slavery transformed. The 13th amendment was added to the Constitution in December of 1865, reading, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” With the addition of this amendment, slavery was officially abolished, however, America would never provide Black citizens with full freedom and liberty (even today as we witness racist injustices with our own eyes). After the emancipation and constitutional addition, Black people were still treated as livestock—lynchings continued to occur, racism through Jim Crow laws and legal segregation took wave, the disproportionate imprisonment of Black and Brown people as well as police brutality and economic disparities directed at the same group took slavery’s place. Incidentally, the 13th amendment allows the practice of modern slavery through the prison system. After Black people were freed from their chains of slavery, white supremacists found other ways of imposing their hate in physical and social ways. Lynchings; state-sanctioned violence; and hate crimes combined with segregation; economic, educational, and societal oppression; and mass incarceration have kept Black people in bondage nearly two centuries after they were emancipated. According to the Pew Research Center, Black folks make up 12% of the US population, but account for 33% of the country’s prison population. In comparison, white people make up 64% of America, but represent only 30% of its prison population. An even more startling fact is that while Black men represent 6.5% of the US population, they account for 40.2% of the prison population. It’s anticipated that 1 in 3 Black men will go to prison in his lifetime, while 1 in 14 white males will. Of course the racist disparities in the criminal justice system and American society are expected as the systems were literally built on the blood and bones of enslaved people, but it’s important to recognize how the U.S.’s love for cops, courts, and cages is shaped by the creation of chattel slavery. Juneteenth is an important and beautiful holiday about which all Americans should learn. However, we also have to remember that slavery still transpires through the prison system as Black people (especially Black trans people) are disproportionately jailed and forced into free labor. They are also systemically oppressed by policing, economic and educational inequity, and inherent segregation in 2023. Especially in such a moment where police violence is viciously spread across the country and Black people are being routinely executed by both cops and white supremacists, may we remember the promise of Juneteenth and that true freedom does not exist until we are all free.