June 19th is "Juneteenth." The annual celebration marks the day in 1865 when African-American slaves in Texas finally learned that they were free, long after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. Juneteenth has long been celebrated by African-Americans in the Southern states. It has caught on in the North in more recent years.
But Western Michigan University's vice-president of diversity and inclusion says not enough people know about the story behind Juneteenth. Dr. Candy McCorkle says that's especially true of many younger people. But she says that it is important that they hear about it. McCorkle says the history of the freeing of the slaves, and what came after, is a crucial part of the history of the entire country, not just for African-Americans.
There is still controversy over Emancipation. Some think Lincoln could have acted sooner and more broadly to free the slaves while the Civil War was still underway. At first, his Proclamation freed only slaves in the Confederate States, not those still in the Union. But McCorkle says a historical issue with bigger implications for people today is Reconstruction. That's the period between 1865 and 1877 when African-Americans won their freedom and began to exercise it, only to lose it during the Jim Crow era in the South and to pervasive racial discrimination in the North.
McCorkle says Juneteenth should encourage conversations about race today. She says Americans often don't spend a lot of time with our history, especially some aspects of it like slavery. She says Juneteenth can help young African-Americans understand the sacrifices that were made for the rights and opportunities they have now. McCorkle says it also sheds light on problems that linger.
"Some of the things we're dealing with today are not new," McCokle says. "We're still dealing with them because we've forgotten the lessons of the past. Juneteenth is a time when we recognize our nation's shortcomings and try to make amends."
You can see displays about Juneteenth through the end of June at the Bernhard Center and in Trimpe Hall on WMU's Main Campus.