“Juneteenth is one of the many steps toward freedom that Black people were experiencing in America in the early years,” said Dorsey, the author of To Build Our Lives Together: Community Formation in Black Atlanta, 1875-1906 (University of Georgia, 2004).
Celebrating the holiday is wonderful, she said, as long as everyone is aware of the facts.
“Black people celebrated when New York state ended slavery; they celebrated when Connecticut ended slavery. In each step, there’s a moment of celebration. I want Black people to be happy in whatever way they want to be happy. If you want to have a barbecue or a dance party, celebrate. But to prevent the corporate, ‘Come to the Juneteenth sale,’ you emphasize the history.”
Juneteenth commemorates the June 19, 1865, announcement in Galveston proclaiming African Americans’ freedom from slavery in the state of Texas roughly two years after President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. In her talk “Making Freedom Dreams Reality: Black Activism, Constitutional Rights and the Ongoing Struggle for Liberation,” held at Rose Hill, Dorsey described what happened in the years immediately following that announcement. She spoke in conversation with Chief Diversity Officer Rafael Zapata for the event, which was sponsored by his office.
Finding Lost Family
The first thing the former slaves did was set off to travel as far as 800 miles to track down lost spouses, siblings, and children. Dorsey said there is a popular misconception that the unpaid labor that slaves were forced to perform was one of the worst indignities they suffered. But in fact, the first thing they strove to repair were shattered familial bonds.
“I want to be clear that the kind of the sociological arguments that were made by white scholars in the 1960s that slavery destroyed the Black family are nonsensical,” she said.
“Yes, it broke up individual Black families, but the concept of family, the feeling people had for their relatives, their children, their mates—that is a human phenomenon that slavery doesn’t have the ability to disrupt.”
Entering Politics to Help Their Communities
There was also an explosion of interest in learning to read, she said, as well as a push to exercise the political power granted in 1870 by the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which gave Black men the right to vote.
“What I found sort of breathtaking was the boldness of their determination to use elected office not to benefit themselves, but to benefit their community,” she said.
Much of the progress that the formerly enslaved made after Juneteenth unraveled when United States Federal troops pulled out of Southern states in 1877 and the era of Reconstruction ended, Dorsey said. Understanding the backlash that followed Juneteeth, she said, is important for putting today’s struggles for racial justice into perspective.
“I’m going to celebrate Juneteenth…. but also know that my focus has to be on the next step and the next step.”