Juneteenth: A Celebration and Reflection

Juneteenth is a time for celebration and reflection. For more than 150 years, Black people across America, especially in the South, have hosted jubilees on June 19 to celebrate the joy and resilience of the Black community. At the same time, the day can be a painful reminder of how far we still have to go.

Juneteenth is recognized as the day when the Emancipation Proclamation finally reached Texas on June 19, 1865, over two years after President Abraham Lincoln had signed the Proclamation.

As we collectively celebrate this day of freedom, we must all understand that the work towards liberation is not over. Though Black people may be free from chattel slavery and bondage, structural racism deeply woven into this country’s fabric continues to disadvantage Black life outcomes.  

During slavery, policing in the United States was born from Night Watches in the North and Slave Patrols in the South. After slavery was outlawed, police and prisons continued to carry out their original purposes under the guises of law. While there have been movements within police departments and the Department of Justice to address racism, there has never been a true reformation of policing that dismantled its origin as an institution that upholds and perpetuates systemic racism.

As long as prisons have existed in America, Black people have been incarcerated at a disproportionately high rate. That includes Washington State today where the population disparity is vast. Despite nearly 70% of the state’s residents identifying as white, they make up just 8% of the incarcerated population. Conversely, 4.4% of people in Washington State identify as Black or African American yet make up nearly 50% of the incarcerated population.

Source: Prison Policy Initiative

Six months after the founding events of Juneteenth, the 13th Amendment of the US Constitution was ratified, making chattel slavery illegal in the United States. When we look at the rates of incarceration, however, we can see that the 13th Amendment did not ban all forms of slavery. The amendment states that “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.”

Today, prisons pay slave wages to an inmate population that is mostly Black, Hispanic or Latinx, and Native. In Washington State, inmates make between $0.36 – $2.70 per hour, well below the state’s minimum wage of $13.50 per hour. When Black communities are over-policed and over-incarcerated, the result is that they are effectively re-enslaved by a society that has told them they are free.

The events of Juneteenth and the end of chattel slavery in America were the result of decades of work by abolitionists across the country. This activism was borne out of the resilience of Black people but included Americans of all races and backgrounds. That spirit of collective liberation is carried today by activist groups nationwide who are advocating for reparations, restitution, abolition, and justice, including local organizations and coalitions focused on building a thriving Black community.

Even as Juneteenth becomes a national holiday and an official holiday in Washington State, we see politicians and certain groups actively fighting against teaching about this country’s history of racism, as well as passing new laws that make it harder for Black communities to vote.

Every victory towards Black liberation demands celebration and joy, but celebrating Juneteenth is not enough to create real change. That will require radical action from our City, our State, and our Federal government. We must dismantle the prison-industrial complex and other institutions that perpetuate systemic racism. Until we do that, none of us are free.


Get involved with community organizations doing the work:

Join the celebrations:

Juneteenth 2021 in Seattle: A Guide to Local Events, South Seattle Emerald