ED GORDON, host:
Festivities are happening all over the country and the world today for Juneteenth, a commemoration of the end of slavery in America. But commentator Rochelle Riley won't be going to any of them. She says if she were a slave back in 1865 and found out the emancipation proclamation was signed two and a half years earlier, those extra years of slavery would be nothing to celebrate.
Ms. ROCHELLE RILEY (Columnist, Detroit Free Press): I have never celebrated Juneteenth. I just can't rejoice at slaves in the American southwest finding out that they were free more than two and a half years after President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.
I know there was no Fed Ex in those days, but I'm just saying.
I imagine myself in the Galveston fields, slinging, planting, and harvesting, then looking up to see General George Granger and his troops ride in on June 19th, 1865, to tell us that we're free. I imagine my feelings after he reads General Order Number Three, and asking someone nearby did he say September 22nd, 1862? I imagine those 46 months, 1,377 days - a lifetime for slaves who died in the years between freedom and word of freedom.
As much as I love a good anniversary, a happy celebration, a commemoration of moments of import - I can't bring myself to rejoice at the delayed news, because I can imagine me looking at General Granger and his men and saying, what took you so long?
Truth is, I celebrate freedom every day. But I especially celebrate freedom on the Fourth of July, because that is the holiday that represents a nation that my ancestors helped build. Celebrating the American holiday helps me give them credit for their trials, their efforts, their deaths, their inventions, their brilliance, and their unsung contributions. I celebrate Crispus Attucks, who died first in the American Revolution, and Phillis Wheatley, whose words soared above hate to reach a president. I celebrate having a job that my grandmother could not have had, and preparing my daughter for a life that already has exceeded my childhood dreams.
Juneteenth is black America's oldest holiday, and marks the day of the announcement and the leave-taking when those slaves in Galveston headed north and east to find lost family members and to reestablish themselves. Their annual trek back to Galveston, where they first learned of freedom, is the forerunner of today's picnics and reunions. Juneteenth is a state holiday, not only in Texas, but in Alaska, California, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Louisiana, Missouri, New Jersey, Oklahoma, and Wyoming. And it is celebrated in the District of Columbia. Michigan is not on the list, but I can also imagine slaves traveling through to Canada, figuring out they'd rather celebrate on the other side of that border.
Still, I knew that Juneteenth had truly become a national holiday when New York Governor George Pataki established June 19th as Juneteenth Freedom Day in New York two years ago. Of course, this was when Pataki still had national political aspirations, so Juneteenth was followed by his announcements of new sites on the state's Underground Railroad Heritage Trail, and the declaration of March 10th as Harriet Tubman Day last year.
As for me, this was the year I finally agreed with the actor Morgan Freeman, that Black History Month segregates us, encourages black folks to embrace a separate joy instead of sharing our joy and history with all those who must know it to be truly American. The few separate holidays and more American holidays we embrace together, the sooner we an embrace each other.
GORDON: Rochelle Riley is a columnist for the Detroit Free Press.
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