Some folks are proposing that "Juneteenth," the 19th of June, go onto the calendar of Massachusetts commemorations. The Boston Globe reported on a petition to that effect, and columnist Derrick Jackson wrote about why Americans should remember Juneteenth—though without speaking to the question of an official holiday. Among bloggers, Derek at Third Decade, Chris at LeftCenterLeft, and the Great White Snark offer their opinions.
So of course I must have mine. To start with, it doesn't matter whether governments or businesses can afford a new holiday closing so close to Memorial Day. The national proposal is to observe Juneteenth as a "holiday observance similar to Flag Day," the Globe reports, and nobody gets Flag Day off. Juneteenth is "observed on the third Saturday of the month" in a few states, so nobody's getting that day off, either. This push is about adding an "official" label to the commemoration, and thus giving it some level of official respect.
Juneteenth is pegged to the arrival of the news of emancipation in the region of Galveston, Texas. That was a big deal—in Texas. It makes sense for the Texas government to observe the anniversary (as "Emancipation Day"). But should Juneteenth become the focus of the whole country's remembrance of slavery? What about the day Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation (22 September), the day it took effect (1 January, already a federal holiday), or the day the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution was ratified (18 December)? Those dates were more significant for the USA as a whole. Focusing on Juneteenth is a synecdoche, one small piece standing for the whole because people are tickled by the day's quaint name and story.
But what about that story? The popular narrative of Juneteenth is that the enslaved people around Galveston didn't know of emancipation until the U.S. army arrived. Ignorant black people needing rescue by white authorities—is that really the picture of emancipation to emphasize? As Derrick Jackson notes, news of the legal end of slavery had reached Texas, and some enslaved people were freeing themselves already. The problem was recalcitrant slave owners who continued to keep workers in bondage. The U.S. army didn't bring news of the Thirteenth Amendment to the slaves; it brought news to slaveholders that it was going to enforce that amendment.
All that said, what would be the harm of adding Juneteenth to Massachusetts's list of holidays? I fear it might distract us from understanding our own state's history. Not because Juneteenth would come only two days after Bunker Hill Day. But because Massachusetts has its own history of slavery and emancipation that predates the Thirteenth Amendment, and in fact predates that Constitution. A Massachusetts holiday about slavery and its end should include that history.
The movement that ended slavery in Massachusetts started before the Revolution, as the pre-war lobbying of Newton Prince shows. In a period of republican ideology based on the idea of natural liberty, many people came to believe that slavery was untenable. Emancipation was thus directly related to the state struggle for political liberty. While Prince Hall and other blacks continued to petition the legislature, abolitionist lawyers like Theodore Sedgwick looked for test cases to move through the judicial branch. The case of Brom and Mum Bett in 1780 established a county-court precedent based on the new Massachusetts constitution's statement of natural equality. Then the Quock Walker case made that precedent stick statewide. Chief Justice William Cushing told a Superior Court jury in April 1783:
...whatever sentiments have formerly prevailed in this particular or slid in upon us by the example of others, a different idea has taken place with the people of America, more favorable to the natural rights of mankind, and to that natural, innate desire of Liberty, with which Heaven (without regard to color, complexion, or shape of noses—features) has inspired all the human race. And upon this ground our Constitution of Government, by which the people of this Commonwealth have solemnly bound themselves, sets out with declaring that all men are born free and equal—and that every subject is entitled to liberty, and to have it guarded by the laws, as well as life and property—and in short is totally repugnant to the idea of being born slaves. This being the case, I think the idea of slavery is inconsistent with our own conduct and Constitution; and there can be no such thing as perpetual servitude of a rational creature...The jury returned a verdict in favor of Walker, declaring that his former owner had been wrong to try to recapture him and had therefore committed assault on a free man.
Of course, there are some wrinkles to that history. (History's so old it's always wrinkled.) Massachusetts was the first British colony in North America to sanction slavery under the law, in 1641. There were even slaves in Massachusetts even before that, as the travel writings of John Josselyn show. That means Massachusetts law allowed slavery for 142 years, and its real duration was even longer. As a contrast, slavery was legal in Georgia from 1751 to 1863, or 112 years. The long history of enslavement in Massachusetts shouldn't be forgotten.
Second, the Quock Walker decision wasn't welcomed by all. Some saw its emphasis on human rights over property rights and tradition as egregious judicial activism. Over a decade later, on 4 March 1795, James Winthrop, chief justice of the Court of Common Pleas, wrote to the Rev. Jeremy Belknap:
By a misconstruction of our State Constitution, which declares all men by nature free and equal, a number of citizens have been deprived of property formerly acquired under the protection of law.Winthrop also wrote that in 1795 African-Americans "have the same privileges of schooling, as other people"—which they did not, at least in Boston. And that "they can neither elect or be elected to offices of government"—which was indeed the custom, but not the law.
Finally, despite the Walker decision, Massachusetts didn't become a slavery-free zone right away. That case wasn't reported or publicized, so only in retrospect did it become a landmark. We still don't know the exact date of the decision (which makes it hard to observe its anniversary). Many enslaved workers continued to live in the same households, working in exchange for room, board, and clothing as they had before. It took a few more decades before state courts decided that slaveholders living elsewhere lost their legal ownership if they brought their human property into the state. But the Walker case told Massachusetts slave owners that they could no longer ask the state courts to enforce their power.