Juneteenth for White People

by Sr. Mary Ann Zimmer, ND

This month we commemorate June 19th, the day in 1865 when the enslaved people of Galveston, Texas finally heard about the Emancipation Proclamation and learned that they could no longer be legally enslaved. As we know, this was both a glorious day and not complete emancipation. It was incredibly welcome news that gives rise to annual celebrations of Black resilience, rich culture, and deep community. At the same time, Juneteenth did not allow for full citizenship, give recompense for enslaved people’s exploited labor and the horrific violence against them, repair the cruel family separation, or address their ongoing disenfranchisement. The history of the United States before that day was built on three hundred years of slave labor. Since that day the ongoing legacy of that system and the attitudes that allowed it still scar our nation. As I learn more than I did in school, I am growing in my understanding of how that system is really not over.

Among our common reactions to this painful history are denial—it wasn’t really that bad; minimization—descendants of formerly enslaved people should be over it by now; personal separation from the issue–I cannot be blamed for what happened so long ago. All of these are ways to escape the horror of a history that is so painful to feel.

What has helped me greatly in coping open-heartedly with our national history and our current reality, is learning the crucial difference between guilt and responsibility. Guilt is so often a paralyzing emotion. Actual guilt fills me with shame. I want to withdraw from the situation provoking my guilt. In the face of historic harms, it is not useful. Neither I nor any of us today are guilty of causing the past painful and unjust history of our nation. We were not there; we did not make those decisions, buy those people, inflict that violence, or write those laws.

What is useful is a realistic determination to take responsibility for what I can do about those ongoing harms today. Taking responsibility is active and positive. I still benefit from the labor of enslaved people that is built into our national economy, historic infrastructure, and uneven social benefits.

One example that I have only recently faced is the uneven way that the GI Bill was administration after World War II. The benefits of the GI bill affected veterans for generations to come as education and home loans enabled them to gain and pass on significant assets to their families. When my father came home from the Pacific, the GI Bill is how he was able to buy a modest home for his growing family. Many of his fellow veterans were denied that right.

The GI Bill was a federal benefit but was administered by the states. Black veterans in many states were completely denied home loans or only permitted to buy housing in poor and isolated neighborhoods, severely limiting the equity they could acquire. Many colleges did not accept GI benefits for Black soldiers or only provided them at trade schools or impoverished Black colleges. For Black veterans, who had also suffered for their country, those benefits did not provide the economic boost that White veterans were owed and received. Again, those losses at a historic moment have affected Black communities for succeeding generations in terms of lost equity and economic security.

This picture includes the fact that the veterans who were part of my family had less competition in the housing market and for spots in college classes because many Black veterans were excluded. I have responsibility for myself in my present historical situation to do my part to bring that home to my fellow citizens. The past is not past; how do I take responsibility for the ways I participate in the ongoing harms and unbalanced advantages of my life in the present.

No, I did not create this system. I have benefited from it. How do I take responsibility?

What do I know about this history and might there be gaps in my knowledge?

How do I feel looking at our national history of enslavement?

There are rich resources and recommendations for reading on the online page of the National Museum of African American History.

Sources: npr.org 10/18/22; history.com gi-bill

Commentary on Juneteenth from the National Museum of African American History

Juneteenth reading list for all ages