As a son of Liberty County, Texas, I have long celebrated the day that liberty came to my home state. It was 158 years ago on Juneteenth when Union General Gordon Granger brought word of emancipation to the enslaved communities of far-flung Galveston.
This month marks the third year the nation joins in the celebration. And yet, the Juneteenth story is an unfinished one, for we live in a country that has yet to properly revise and edit the pervasive inequalities born of American Apartheid.
The facts should be familiar to all Americans: Effective January 1, 1863, proclaimed President Abraham Lincoln from the White House, “all persons held as slaves… are, and henceforth shall be free.” In truth, enslavement persisted. It would be months before insurrectionists finally surrendered at Appomattox and more than two years—until June 19, 1865—for Union troops to arrive and actually enforce the freedom of 250,000 formerly enslaved people in the most remote areas of the United States.
Newly freed people immediately laid righteous claim to the American ideal—what Frederick Douglass called “absolute equality”—that was both envisioned by our founders while also denied to many. ” It is an ideal to which we still aspire—a multi-racial, multi-ethnic, pluralist democracy.
As my friend and fellow Texan, the brilliant historian Annette Gordon-Reed, points out, it was significant that the first Juneteenth celebrations included voting instruction for Texas’s newly freed Black people. And, as she notes, it was the courage of these people—their patriotic struggle, sacrifice, and willingness to enter the voting booths and American life that deliberately excluded them—that truly transformed the Emancipation Proclamation from a directive, housed in the highest government offices, to a reality born of Texan fields and streets.
Today, we mark this history by remembering that progress must extend past the letter of the law. Enforcement put the Emancipation Proclamation into place, ensuring that it was more than a distant promise. Similarly, freedom would have remained unrealized and unfulfilled if not for the efforts of formerly enslaved people and Black Texans.
Long after Granger’s announcement, many enslavers used threats, violence, and mass incarceration to retain enslaved people. Their deliberate efforts evolved into the invidious web of Jim Crow laws that preserved slavery by barring Black people from hospitals, voting booths, banks, and beyond. In truth, the emancipation struggle continued for a century after Granger’s arrival—in some ways, it continues still—in the generations of Black Southerners who protested, marched, and seized, from the tyranny of injustice, their birthright as Americans. We know that this fight is far from finished.
At the Ford Foundation, we honor Juneteenth by investing in the communities still fighting for justice and equality—from the small towns of Texas to our nation’s most sprawling cities. We support those closest to inequalities—the communities who carry intimate knowledge of injustice’s persistent cruelties—with the tools to craft lasting solutions to them. And, we work to strengthen democratic values and institutions—to protect the inherent rights and dignity of all people.
This Juneteenth, our jubilee of liberation, let us recommit ourselves to the mighty effort required, across decades and centuries, to make real the promises of 1776, 1863, and 1865. It is time, as the great Langston Hughes said, to make America more American and to make this nation we love more perfect.