Three years ago, on April 15, 2019, the great cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris burned down. The construction of this incredible piece of architecture began all the way back in the year 1163. That’s fully 613 years before the signing of the Declaration of Independence. At the time of the fire, I remember people remarking on the fact that America may be large in terms of land area, but there are many other countries which are large in history. And yet, despite America only being around for less than 250 years, there are still many, many important events my AP US History class seems to have left out. For example, it was not until this year that I was aware of the significance of June 19th – Juneteenth.
On New Year’s Day of 1863, Abraham Lincoln declared in the Emancipation Proclamation that all slaves in the Confederate States of America were henceforth free. This stunning use of the President’s executive power as Supreme Commander of the armed forces paved the way for the full abolishment of slavery via the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865. However, despite the proclamation being made in the North, slaveowners in the South did everything they could to prevent this knowledge from reaching their slaves. And although Robert E. Lee surrendered on April 9, 1865, other parts of the western Confederate States kept fighting for several more months. It wasn’t until General Gordon Granger made it to Galveston, Texas, on June 19, 1865, that the slaves there were finally freed. This was fully two years after Lincoln made his Emancipation Proclamation. In 2021, President Biden signed a new federal holiday, memorializing the occasion.
Honestly, I find it stunning to realize that I did not know this fact of American history. It makes me wonder what else is out there that I do not know. I think that it also shines a spotlight on the way that we sometimes gloss over the more shameful parts of our history that we’d like to forget. But these things should be remembered and taught. For if we forget them, then we lose track of how things have gotten to be the way they are, and we risk falling into the same traps we’ve run into before.
We tend to think of history as happening in discreet parts, partially because this is the way we are taught. For example, the Cold War began with the end of World War II, and ended with the fall of the Soviet Union. However, for those living in the era, these happenings are part of a continuous whole. And yet, when we look even further back, we tend to lump events together into broad sweeping changes. An excellent example of this is the Hundred Years’ War. At the time, this was seen as several different wars, sometimes with decades of peace between them. But modern historians now recognize that these conflicts were all part of a single era. It makes you wonder what historians will think when they look back at our time. Have we simply been living in a brief moment where we thought the Cold War was over? Or does Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine indicate that things are not as we thought? Only time will tell.
A bit more of a serious tone for this week’s newsletter. But because I did not know the significance of June Nineteenth until just a few weeks ago, I think that there may be other people who have not heard of Juneteenth either.
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