The California Legislative Black Caucus (CLBC) continued last week’s celebration of Juneteenth, America’s newest federal holiday, with the group’s first in-person event since the state reopened on June 15 — and since the COVID-19 shelter-in-place order took effect in March 2020.
Billed as “CLBC Juneteenth Black Family History Event,” the commemoration focused on Black miners and the integral role they played during the California Gold Rush era of the 1850s. Family members of the miners, serving as historical experts, assisted CLBC members and research staff with information for the celebration.
The event was held at the Constitution Wall Courtyard in the Secretary of State’s office in Sacramento where California’s first Black Secretary of State Shirley Weber made her first public appearance at the facility since she was sworn in to serve in that role.
Weber, whose parents were sharecroppers in Hope, Ark., shared that there is “another side of California” that should be historically told in full context.
“We think of California as a free state yet there are many examples that took place where people were brought to California as slaves and were made to stay in California as slaves,” Weber said. “And then, when there was opportunity for them to stay in California, they wanted to remain. But the government and others decided that they would pass the Fugitive Slave Act. So, if you came here (as an enslaved person) you were sent back to Mississippi or Alabama. So, it becomes important when we talk about reparations that we have a full picture of California and what took place here.”
Much like the story of Juneteenth, the California Black miners’ experience is largely excluded from texts and research. But one of those stories of servitude was told by the event’s keynote speaker Jonathan Burgess from the California African American Gold Rush Historical Association.
He talked about how his Black family’s land was taken from them. He also said that the “true history” of California has not been fully explained and, to him, it is a “miscarriage of justice to teach our kids incorrect history.”
“My goal is to educate and enlighten those who are not informed and believed that slavery did not exist in California,” said Burgess last week as he celebrated Juneteenth as a federal holiday for the first time in its 156-year history.
“I also want to share some of the tactics that were used to take land. This has been occurring since individuals came to what supposedly was a free state but hasn’t been completely free,” Burgess said.
Like Burgess, many Black leaders, celebrities, and activists here in California — and around the country — registered their approval of Juneteenth becoming America’s 12th nationally recognized holiday. But they cautioned Americans of all backgrounds to resist the impulse to reduce, arguably, the most significant historic moment in Black American history to an annual marketing event.
Last week, President Joe Biden signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act into law after most of the U.S. House and every member of the U.S. Senate who voted on the bill approved it.
Juneteenth, or June 19, marks the day in 1865 when Major General Gordon Granger of the anti-slavery Union Army traveled to Galveston, Texas, to let enslaved Black people there know that two and-and-a-half years before President Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed all slaves in the United States – on paper.
“Great nations don’t ignore their most painful moments. They embrace them,” the president said, celebrating the bill’s passage and marking the end of slavery and honoring African American history.
State Senator Brian Dahle said, “We should not be afraid of learning about our history. The more truth we bring to light, the better we are at making decisions as we take on the challenges of our time. Events like this are a positive way to move forward together”.
Genealogists and members of the Sacramento African American Genealogical Society welcomed Black legislators and staff and set up laptop computers to help guests find the path to their ancestors. Black history resources were provided by FamilySearch International, a nonprofit organization sponsored by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Millions of formerly hidden records have been made available for free by the Church as a tool to help the world understand that all people are connected as brothers and sisters of God.
Mixed Reactions to Juneteenth Holiday
Other Black leaders took to social media, group chats and in-person discussions to both celebrate and “crack” on the Biden’s decision to make Juneteenth a federal holiday. Some complained that while the symbolism of the holiday is important, substantial current issues such as voting rights, police violence, adding Black History to the educational curriculum, and reparations needed to be included in the legislation.
A number of postings centered their skepticism and criticism on the possible commercialization of the holiday.
“I better not see a single Juneteenth mattress sale, y’all hear me?! We didn’t stop picking cotton for it to be sold to us for a profit. Give us reparations, not capitalistic BS,” Comedian Jackée Harry posted on Twitter June 17.
Anthony Samad, the executive director of the Mervyn Dymally African American Political and Economic Institute at California State University Dominguez Hills took to Facebook.
“What do we need another GOTDAMNED holiday for, anyway? Another day to fuel capitalism by spending money Black people don’t have?” Samad fired off. “This is a distraction away from the racial hostility we’re experiencing today, and away from the reparations discussion,” said Samad, who is also an educator, columnist and author of several books.
Samad warned that the commercialization of Juneteenth could take a lot of distasteful turns.
“Juneteenth celebrated the day federal troops arrived in Texas to enforce the Emancipation Proclamation, which only freed slaves in states in rebellion against the Union,” Samad stated. “Texas ignored that the Confederacy had lost the war and the emancipation until Union troops showed up to enforce it. It’s already being appropriated with a false and distorted narrative.
On Roland Martin’s digital daily show, guest Carl Mack, a former president of the Seattle Washington-King County Branch of the NAACP, said hundreds of thousands of African Americans remained enslaved after June 19, 1865. Mack said while he supports the efforts, knowing the true breadth and depth of the history of Juneteenth is something all Americans have to come to grips with, he said.
Regardless of difference of opinions, lawmakers in the state of California believe that a Juneteenth holiday will heighten knowledge that was obscured beyond the Black community.
“This is a timely and appropriate step in the right direction as conversations continue around slavery and reparations to descendants of these atrocities,” said State Sen. Steven Bradford (D-Gardena), chairperson of the CLBC “Today is an opportunity for fellowship, celebration, and recommitting ourselves to addressing the lasting impacts of slavery that continue to affect Black life’s conditions in America. If we fail to learn from this history, we are doomed to repeat it.”
State Sen. Sydney Kamlager (D-Los Angeles) also added that Juneteenth was celebrated last week on the Senate floor as “Freedom Day” and many of lawmakers, as well as many Black people, were also unaware of its existence.
“It is a shame that we are not talking about this in our schools, (kindergarten) through 12th grade, secondary schools and beyond,” Kamlager said. “It is really important that we know our history and for us to know who we are.”
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