Why Are Republicans So Eager To Erase The History Behind Juneteenth?
Since 2021, by act of Congress and the signature of President Joe Biden, June 19th is celebrated as National Independence Day, a federal holiday along with the 11 others officially recognized as national holidays: New Years Day, Martin Luther King’s birthday, Presidents’ Day (originally George Washington’s birthday), Memorial Day, Independence Day (July 4), Labor Day, Columbus Day, Veterans Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas Day. Juneteenth celebrates the emancipation of slaves in the state of Texas on June 19, 1865, two and a half years after President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, freeing all slaves in the states of the Confederacy.
The Emancipation of slaves was partially achieved with the surrender of the Confederacy on April 9, 1865, by General Robert E. Lee at Appomattox, Virginia. But slaves were not freed in some former states of the Confederacy until the Army of Trans-Mississippi surrendered on June 2, 1865. It took the arrival of Major General Gordon Granger and 2,000 troops of the Union Army to enforce the Emancipation in the state of Texas, where some 250,000 people were still enslaved. The date of the arrival of Granger and his army, June 19, 1865, marked the end of slavery in the former Confederate states, although because the Emancipation applied only to the states of the Confederacy, it would take the passage of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution on December 6, 1865, to free the slaves in the border states of Delaware and Kentucky.
We all know why July 4 is celebrated as Independence Day, marking the signing of the Declaration of Independence by the 13 colonies from British rule. But did you know this history of our other independence day, June 19th? I didn’t, but I’ll tell you who does know it and has known it for more than 150 years: our fellow citizens who are Black, the majority of whom in this country are descended from enslaved people. Think about that for a moment. The Declaration of Independence and the Revolutionary War freed the newly formed United States from British rule, but it didn’t free the Black people who were living as slaves. In fact, the Constitution specifically did not end slavery, instead coming up with something called the “three-fifths rule” that apportioned representation in the House of Representatives in the states of the South by establishing that a slave counted for three-fifths of a person for the purpose of the census, which was also established in the Constitution.
My sixth great-grandfather was the author of the Declaration of Independence. At the time he wrote that document, Jefferson owned in excess of 200 slaves, and over the course of his lifetime, would own some 400 more. The legacy of slavery, when it is talked about at all, is mentioned in historical terms. But for millions of our fellow citizens, it is not just part of our national history, it is personal. It means that individual Black citizens can look back at their family history and see that it includes ancestors who were enslaved.
In my family’s history, it means that we can look back and see ancestors -- not just Thomas Jefferson, but his daughters and grandchildren – who were slave owners. Today, the Washington Post published a story exploring the family histories of Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson and her husband, Patrick Jackson. As the Post put it, the couple had “a historical subject in common: enslaved people. His ancestors owned them, while her ancestors were them.”
This is far more common than white American citizens think. Many of our Black citizens know their family histories much better than white citizens do. They know the names of the families who owned their ancestors. In many cases, they also know the names of white citizens they are related to because a white slave owner, or members of his family, had sex with a slave, and they are descended from that union – usually but not always unacknowledged by the descendants of the white slave owner.
That makes the history of slavery in this country very, very personal for a lot of people, almost all of them Black. It’s personal in my family, too. Dealing with the legacy of slavery in the Jefferson family caused me to spend several years of my life attempting to get my family’s cousins who are descendants of Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson included as members of the Monticello Association, the group of white Jefferson descendants that owns the graveyard at Monticello. My brother and my sisters and I were not successful in this endeavor. To this day, the Monticello Association refuses to recognize our cousins in the Hemings family as fellow Jefferson descendants and refuses them membership and rights to burial in the graveyard.
Monticello itself, owned by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, has embraced the history of the slaves owned by Jefferson and recognized the Hemings family as descendants of the third president of the United States. I was part of the effort which pushed hard for this to happen. For decades before the 1990’s, you could visit Monticello as a tourist and never hear the word “slave” on a tour or see it written on a plaque, or mentioned anywhere in the written materials passed out at Monticello.
When my friend Annette Gordon Reed wrote her first book, “Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy,” the establishment of Jefferson historians came down on her hard. They tried to stamp out any possibility that Annette’s book would be taken seriously as a work of history. That is, until a study of Jefferson and Hemings family DNA in 1998 proved that Jefferson had fathered Sally Hemings’ children. Then they ran to embrace Annette’s book.
It took DNA for the history of the Hemings family to be accepted by historians. That means that it took science to force the truth about Jefferson and his children with Sally Hemings out of the dark and into the light. That fact is very personal to the Hemings family, as well as to the historian who wrote their family history her next book, “The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family.” It’s disgusting that it took DNA to prove history that had been known to the Hemings family for nearly two centuries.
In my own family, because Jefferson had two white daughters with his wife Martha and no sons, we don’t have even a scrap of DNA to prove we are descendants of the great man. All we have is some family genealogy and our word. But our word has been accepted by historians for more than two centuries.
And now a history of a Supreme Court Justice can be traced to slavery in two ways – she is a descendant of slaves who is married to a descendant of slave owners with a grand family history that traces back to four passengers on the Mayflower and a signer of the Constitution.
The history of Ketanji Brown Jackson and Patrick Jackson has turned out to be a rich one, not in the economic sense of “rich” but in the sense of being complex and compelling. I can tell you that nothing made my life and the lives of my family richer than learning about our connection to our cousins in the Hemings family. It deepens our understanding of who we are and our understanding of this country.
Why do we find ourselves struggling against political forces that want to bury this rich history of our country, which includes slavery and its legacy? Sure, we know that politicians like Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has made himself famous for attempting to limit teaching about Black history in the state of Florida, are out there looking for votes among people who have racist beliefs. But beyond the pure politics involved, how do we explain the resistance among historians to the story of Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson? No political party was attached to burying that history. Was it just pure racism? Or was it something more complex, a dream of America that has refused to include the Americans among us who are descended from the slaves who helped with their labor to build this country?
Ketanji Brown Jackson traces her roots to Armstead Rutherford, a former slave who signed a sharecropper agreement with his former enslaver, a plantation owner called John Rutherford, who after the end of the Civil War, signed sharecropper agreements with 11 former slaves who shared his last name. “It was just another form of slavery,” said Sarah J. Dery, a genealogist who has studied Jackson’s family history.
It is how Jackson’s family sees their history that deserves celebrating on this Juneteenth, commemorating the final day of slavery in this country. A family document that is passed around at Ketanji Jackson’s family reunions puts it this way: “It is from these roots that the family has grown to its present state. The family takes great pride in its contribution to the development of America. The roots of this family grew the food, felled the trees, and labored in all of the great undertakings which forged the great nation of the United States of America.”
If only those like DeSantis and the rest of his political party could see our shared history in the same way.
Lucian K. Truscott IV, a graduate of West Point, has had a 50-year career as a journalist, novelist, and screenwriter. He has covered Watergate, the Stonewall riots, and wars in Lebanon, Iraq, and Afghanistan. He is also the author of five bestselling novels. You can subscribe to his daily columns at luciantruscott.substack.com and follow him on Twitter @LucianKTruscott and on Facebook at Lucian K. Truscott IV.