Juneteenth is an American Holiday!

Galveston, Texas, has from the time I was young has been a special place to me. My dad regularly took us to visit his father’s family in Galveston. Galveston held something of a magical, mythical place in my mind. Dad’s family came from Sicily, Italy, and Milos, Greece, in the late 1800 and early 1900s. Coming through the port of New Orleans, a port of immigration at the time second only to New York, the various families finally found their way to Galveston.

I knew about Galveston first-hand growing up spending time with my cousins, going crabbing or just playing on the beach. Oh, and there was that one time when my Maw Maw’s keys got locked in her VW Beetle on the beach in Galveston while the tide was rolling in. So, on Galveston beach I learned the importance of being able to unlock a car with a coat hanger. Of course, I loved Glenn Campbell’s hit song “Galveston” about a solider off at war dreaming of his home and love in Galveston. Like the solider in the song, “I still hear [the] sea waves crashing” in my mind.

I also know a bit about the history of Galveston and that those sea waves crash against a seawall that was constructed after the Great Strom of 1900 that decimated Galveston. In 1900, Galveston was home to many affluent citizens and was a popular up-scale vacation destination. But a hurricane made landfall on September 8, 1900. The death toll for the hurricane numbered in the thousands, but they could not be buried because the land was saturated from the flooding. Burial at sea was attempted. But the bodies floated back in on the tide. Eventually as this became a public health crisis, martial law was declared and men at gunpoint were forced to burn the decaying bodies of family, friends, and strangers. According to my dad’s cousin Benjamin Franklin Biannos, Mitchell Biannos, who was his grandfather and my dad’s great-grandfather, was among those who were required to under take this horrific task.

From Louis Ciaccio, another of my dad’s cousins, I know a more lighthearted story about the family’s “store on three corners.” It was a store run by Louis’ father Vincent with the help of my dad’s Uncle Nick, who was a young man at the time. The building that it occupied was physically moved three different times to three different locations on Galveston island. I know where my dad went to school at Stephen F. Foster Junior High in Galveston. I know where my precious Aunt Catty Mencacci lived just a few blocks from the beach. Though the last time I saw her I was young, I still remember her standing in the yard waving goodbye to us as I suppressed the urge to run back and hug her one more time. In fact, one of my few regrets in life is not running back for the one last hug.   

Another though different type of regret is that as much as I romanticize, love, and know about Galveston, until a few years ago I did not know about Juneteenth, a commemoration of the end of slavery initiated by African Americans in Galveston on June 19, 1866. To be fair, a “few years ago” in my convoluted memory could be two years or two decades. But even if it is two decades ago, that is still late in life for me to learn about such a significant event, not just in the history of Galveston, but in the history of my country. I have been a history buff (OK, geek) since I was a kid. I remember much from my history classes. But I absolutely have no memory of Juneteenth being mentioned in elementary, high school, or even college.

Though it should have been recognized long before, Juneteenth is now an official American holiday, and rightfully so. It is a day that we – collectively – recall that what was wrong with America began at long last to be put right. I am not a fan of many of President Binden’s policies. But I applaud him, the Senate, and all but fourteen members of the House of Representatives for making Juneteenth a national holiday as of June 2021.

For those who do not know, here is a brief history of the date. Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation  (https://catalog.archives.gov/id/299998), a wartime executive order, declared that effective January 1, 1863, slaves were free in the states in rebellion against the Union. The eventual military defeat of the armed forces of the Confederacy enforced this act battle by battle and mile by mile. Texas, the most remote extent of the Confederacy, was last to give way to Union advance. On June 19, 1865, Union Major General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston and issued General Order No. 3 (https://catalog.archives.gov/id/182778372) that announced the end of slavery in accordance with the provisions of the Emancipation Proclamation.  

But slavery still legally existed in a few states that had not seceded from the Union, and slavery ultimately could have been reestablished across the South. However, the ratification of Thirteenth Amendment on December 6, 1865, declared slavery at an end in America. Then, on June 19, 1866, the anniversary of Granger’s General Order No. 3, African Americans in Galveston publicly celebrated the end of slavery on what they called Jubilee Day. (The term Jubilee, of course, was taken from the Old Testament of the Bible as it was the year that Jehovah commanded the enslaved in Israel were to be set free.)   

I do not care whose granddaddy owned slaves and whose granddaddy did not. The fact is slavery is America’s original sin. As a nation we were born with this deformity. The Declaration of Independence‘s lofty ideals of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” stand in stark contrast to the Constitution’s measurement of slaves as “three-fifths” of a person. This stain on the soul of our nation was excised only by the sufferings of generations of our brothers and sisters held in bondage and by the blood of hundreds of thousands in the American Civil War (as if any war could be civil). At great cost this was accomplished. Then should not we – regardless of race or creed or political inclination – exult in this together as one people. 

No, we have not arrived. There is much yet that can be done. Yes, we are very divided. We are divided on what to do and how to do it. But on this date, let us as Americans all celebrate, not what has not been accomplished, but rather what has been. On June 20th, we can again debate a host of things. But today is a day of remembrance, a day of Jubilee, a day of celebrating the end of the enslavement of one group of Americans by another.

Juneteenth is an American holiday!

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Stephen Rizzo

I am a Christian who is flawed but forgiven. I am a father who is blessed beyond measure with two amazing children. I am an educator who is fortunate to get paid for doing what he loves. I am a musician who really needs to practice more.

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