By Catherine Matthews
On Friday, June 19, we mark 155 years since Union General Gordon Granger announced General Order Number 3 (proclaimed on June 19, 1865), which informed the people of Texas that the institution of slavery had ended and that previously enslaved people were free. It had taken considerable time for this information to reach Texas (the Emancipation Proclamation was issued in 1863), but when it did, it was a—arguably, the—final step in the abolishment of slavery. Initially a day celebrated and commemorated by the Black community, in recent decades, Juneteenth has become more and more widely observed.
As a historic site, we spend a lot of time reflecting on the nuance of American history and identity. Juneteenth is a date that all Americans should know and commemorate and celebrate: it is a critical moment in this country’s history and development. Having an understanding of the meaning and importance of Juneteenth is an essential aspect of learning and listening as a society. Juneteenth can also teach us two important lessons that are less tied to the events of that particular day in history. First, Juneteenth has a joyful identity, and yet it also nudges us to remember past events in all their complication and, sometimes, pain. Second, Juneteenth exemplifies the power of people working together to create positive change for their community. These two ideas are topics that we talk about a lot at Old North Church & Historic Site, particularly in recent months and years.
As background, most people learn about Old North in terms of its place in the history of the American Revolution. The story of two lanterns held aloft in Old North’s steeple as a signal to Paul Revere (and many others) has captured the imaginations of generations ever since Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote “ Paul Revere’s Ride.” Both the historically accurate story and Longfellow’s semi-mythologized version are inspiring tales of heroism, sacrifice, teamwork, and bravery. These themes have become central to Old North’s identity, and we are proud to tell that famous story. It is, however, one of many stories. Some of Old North’s other stories are painful, while still others are incomplete. Late last year, for example, we shared research carried out by Dr. Jared Hardesty that revealed the entanglement of early Old North congregants and benefactors in the trafficking of enslaved people. Similarly, while we know that Black congregants—free and enslaved—attended services at Old North from its earliest years, we do not know nearly enough about their experiences or their voices. We have committed to continuing research so we can share a more comprehensive narrative with our visitors. As historians and as interpreters of history, we have a responsibility to relate its totality: inspirational, painful, joyful, and sorrowful. Contradictions do not negate stories—truth, like people, is complex and multifaceted.
Juneteenth can teach us about remembering the complicated past. It is hard to celebrate freedom without recognizing oppression. It is also hard to acknowledge the incredible strength of a people without understanding why they had to be so strong. Celebration, Juneteenth tells us, can and must coexist with remembering the whole story.
Juneteenth offers us another lesson, which stems from how this holiday has come to be observed across the nation. Celebration of Juneteenth has grown to being a recognized (whether legislatively or not) holiday throughout the nation. Much of that growth results from the actions of individuals and their communities working to spread awareness and to lobby for the right at first simply to celebrate, and later, for recognition of the holiday. Initially, that hard work often included contending with opposition from state and local authorities who wanted to prevent Juneteenth gatherings. Today, groups like www.juneteenth.com share information and elicit reflections about what the holiday can and could be. What we see with Juneteenth is active citizenship: people dedicating their voices and talents to improve their community on the micro and macro levels. Many of these active citizens give their time without ever being recognized; many work in small groups to encourage the participation of the larger community. They are fueled by dedication to making the national community richer and stronger.
At Old North, active citizenship is the heart of our work. We see it as the ideal that motivated the lantern holders, Revere, and the other riders; we see it in Longfellow, using his skill with the pen to inspire a new generation toward unity and courage. We aspire to it by telling the entirety of Old North’s history and by producing programming that challenges our audience to see the attributes of active citizenship not only in historical times but also in contemporary society.
Juneteenth is an American holiday to be celebrated by all. It is a holiday that reminds us that change is possible, that all stories must be heard for change to occur, and that we, as active citizens, share the responsibility of making sure that all voices have an opportunity to sing.
Catherine Matthews is the Co-Director of Education at Old North Church & Historic Site.
“History of Juneteenth.” www.juneteenth.com
Holt, Brianna. “Opinion: Juneteenth is Reminder that Freedom Wasn’t Just Handed Over.” The New York Times. June 17, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/17/opinion/juneteenth-holiday.html
“Juneteenth.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Juneteenth .
Luthern, Ashley. “Why Juneteenth Celebrates the New Birth of Freedom.” Smithsonian Magazine. June 19, 2009. Updated June 19, 2018. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/juneteenth-a-new-birth-of-freedom-9572263/