Although President Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation declared enslaved Black people in Confederate territories free, these locations were under Confederate control, which rejected the freedom of enslaved people on plantations throughout the South. The Proclamation did little to emancipate enslaved people. With the Civil War lost, the Confederate army’s surrender on April 9, 1865 should have resulted in immediate freedom for enslaved Black people.
White Southerners, however, remained committed to white supremacy and used violence, misinformation and threats to keep Black people enslaved in defiance of federal law. Enslaved Black people in Texas did not learn about the Emancipation Proclamation until June 19, 1865, when Union troops arrived with news that the Confederacy had lost the war. For generations, African Americans have recognized this date as the day that marked the end of enslavement for Black people in America and the hope for what freedom ought to bring.
Slavery, except for punishment for crime, did not become illegal in the U.S. until December 6, 1865, when the 13th Amendment was officially ratified. Many Southern states including Kentucky and Delaware resisted ratification for decades. Mississippi refused to ratify the 13th Amendment for 130 years, and didn’t formally file its ratification until February 7, 2013.
African Americans quickly learned that the promise of Juneteenth would not be fulfilled, as the Union’s commitment to ending slavery did not include a commitment to Black equality. The end of the Civil War brought the liberation of formerly enslaved people and drastically altered the political and social landscape of the nation. Emancipation presented the opportunity to lay a new foundation and to build towards repairing the harms of enslavement, but that was an opportunity leaders in the United States ultimately failed to pursue.
Reconstruction’s hopeful promise proved to be short-lived, dangerous, and deadly. As EJI’s newly released report on Reconstruction in America documents, at least 2,000 African Americans were victims of racial terror lynchings during this 12-year period. In response to Reconstruction era policies, racial violence and discriminatory political movements committed to re-establishing white supremacy emerged to ensure that emancipation would not mean political participation, social equality, or economic independence for Black people. White Southerners responded to losing the Civil War with increased violence against African Americans across the South that reached epidemic proportions in the summer of 1865 and persisted through the first half of the 20th century.
In 1877, the U.S. government abandoned its promise to protect newly emancipated Black people after enslavement and withdrew federal troops from the South. This decision marked the end of Reconstruction and multiracial democracy, and it left Black men, women, and children vulnerable to a century of racial terror. From 1877 to 1950, at least 4,400 African Americans were killed by racial terror lynchings. During this era, the nation’s legal system turned a blind eye and allowed white Americans to kill with impunity.
Today, more than 150 years after the enactment of the 13th Amendment, very little has been done to address the legacy of slavery and its meaning in contemporary life—despite the fact that the enslavement of Black people created wealth, opportunity, and prosperity for millions of white Americans and gave birth to the American economy. Slavery in America traumatized and devastated millions of people. It created false narratives about racial difference that still persist today. These narratives and the ideology of white supremacy lasted well beyond slavery and fueled decades of racial terror, segregation, mass incarceration, and racial hierarchy.
Juneteenth should be a national day of reflection that invites us all to confront the unfulfilled promises and justice denied to Black people in this nation. This reflection can better prepare us to deal with the legacies of racial injustice that we live with today. By strengthening our understanding of racial history, we can create a healthier discourse about race in America that can lead to an era of truth and justice. EJI is persuaded that the hope of racial justice in America will be shaped not by the fear and resistance of those who doubt its importance but by the commitment, dedication, and action of those who believe that a future free of racial injustice is possible.