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Celebrating Juneteenth –
and the end of a racial slur
By Professor Louis Watanabe
The words rang out: "The people of Texas are informed that in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free." And such, on June 19, 1865, two and a half years after President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, the chains of 250 years of American slavery, of blood and brutality, began to break. It took an entire regiment to enforce Lincoln’s Proclamation because local law enforcement, backed by powerful land – and slave – owners, murdered the messengers who repeatedly tried to deliver the news.
Juneteenth is now a Texas state holiday celebrated on June 19. The name came about because the affected people, slaves, were denied the tools of literacy and used an oral tradition. And while Lincoln might applaud the election of a Black president 145 years after his Proclamation, he might weep at the emotional and economic bondage that continues to enchain our nation.
There isn’t a day that passes without a reminder of the racism affecting my own heritage. My father’s family farmed along the Green River and sold vegetables at Pike Place Market until they were sent to an internment camp during World War II. On February 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066. By June, more than 110,000 Japanese-American citizens were relocated to internment camps built and operated by the U.S. military. They would survive under the glare of barrel and bayonet.
My family’s story is the story of so many families in our region: a story of hard work and courage, of continuing struggle for equality. Many families in today’s Seattle likewise found themselves behind barbed wire, enslaved or indentured. But whether we came in chains or by choice, in freedom or in fear, we live today in pursuit of the American Dream. That Dream continues to be denied to far too many among us.
Tragically, it seems changing culture remains difficult. As we have witnessed from the wretched defense of the use of a racial slur for the name of Washington D.C.’s professional football team, too many in our society continue to justify such a “tradition”, to glory in the subjugation of an entire race. In a show of courage, the Seattle Times Sports Editor Don Shelton banned the use of the team name. The fallout makes me weep. Thousands of residents of Seattle and King County continue to defend discrimination, to rationalize racism.
As a professor, I believe in the enlightenment of education and the humility found in history.
June 12, 1755, Lieutenant Governor Spencer Phips of Massachusetts Bay colony offered a bounty of £40 for the scalp of a Native American male, and £20 for scalps of females or of children under 12 years old. Trappers would bring in Indian scalps along with the animal skins they had trapped or shot selling them at trading posts and government offices. Some in the community found “scalp” offensive, and trappers started using the term "redskin"; they would sell their beaver skins, their bear skins, their "redskins."
Telling the true, bloody and painful story of our past is important for us all to improve the future. It is through the oral tradition that we honor the emotion, the brutality, the gut-wrenching savagery of the worst of our culture. And it is why Juneteenth offers all Americans the chance to break from bondage, regardless of their ethnicity, race or culture.
And we take hope. This past legislative session, the Respecting Holidays of Faith and Conscience Act bill passed. Bill sponsor Sen. Bob Hasegawa introduced SB 5173, which allows public employees and students of public schools, colleges and universities to celebrate two holidays of their faith or their conscience. SB 5173 passed unanimously in the Senate. But a full one-third of the State House of Representatives voted to deny people of faith or conscience these holidays. But when I wonder why, I am reminded that millions of Americans, perhaps a majority, are simply unaware of our own sad history of denying freedoms and rights to others not like themselves.
For those who find their conscience calls upon them to celebrate Juneteenth, to celebrate the day that a Racial Slur Football Team is denied its trademark, to celebrate the end of internment or release from a Concentration Camp, let us all celebrate in this shared freedom.
If Texas can make Juneteenth a holiday, so can we. Let's celebrate that.
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