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‘Been So Long Praying’: 4 Reasons Why I Observe Juneteenth

In 1863, a man on a horse could travel the 253 miles from Washington, DC, to Hale’s Ford, Virginia, in two weeks. It took the Emancipation Proclamation two years to make that journey.

Booker T. Washington distinctly remembered the moment in May 1865 when he heard the good news of his freedom. His mother, the enslaved cook on a Virginia plantation, was standing next to the 9-year-old Washington while a Union officer read Lincoln’s Proclamation, which had been issued on January 1, 1863.

“My mother,” Washington wrote, “who was standing by my side, leaned over and kissed her children, while tears of joy ran down her cheeks. She explained to us what it all meant, that this was the day for which she had been so long praying but fearing that she would never live to see.”

Lincoln’s executive order declared slaves in the Confederate States only were free. However, where Confederate troops held the ground, no one acknowledged Lincoln’s authority so the order wasn’t enforced. The Confederacy kept the news from slaves, in fear it would do what Lincoln had hoped: embolden slaves to rebel against the rebels by joining the Union Army.

Washington and his mother finally heard the good news in May 1865 because Richmond fell on April 2, and a week later, Robert E. Lee met Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox under a white flag. With the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia, the war was effectively over. Every advance of Union troops spread the good news that slaves in Confederate states “henceforward shall be free.”

The last slaves to hear of their blood-bought freedom were in Texas. On June 19, 1865, on the island town of Galveston, Gordon Granger issued General Order No. 3, informing the people of Texas that a quarter of a million slaves in the state were now free and had “absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property.” That remarkable day has come to be known as Juneteenth.

I observe Juneteenth for four reasons.

1. Dedicated days are history’s teaching aids.

My wife and I have fond memories of our decade in Texas, where both our children were born. Texans love their history, and friends delighted in leading me on tours of the Alamo, where Santa Anna thought he won a victory. Then came San Jacinto, where Sam Houston caught up with Santa Anna. Trips to Galveston, the infamous site of our nation’s worst natural disaster, included dinner at Gaido’s with Glen Campbell somehow always in the background as we heard the “seawaves crashing,” reminding us of a different war.

But no one told me about Juneteenth.

In 2014, a marker was placed in Galveston; if there was one before that, I missed it. As much as I’ve studied American history, I’m sad to say I remained ignorant of this historic event until a movement to make it a federal holiday began.

Those concerned that Juneteenth increases racial division rarely oppose remembering the Alamo, Pearl Harbor, and 9/11, even if there’s a risk of fostering animosity toward Hispanic Americans, Asian Americans, and Muslim Americans. These outrages are far in the past, after all. Can’t we forget them and move on? No. The value of studying history is that remembering past failures increases the chances of present success.

2. Past sins have present consequences.

The Emancipation Proclamation ended slavery in the Confederate States. But it didn’t end racism in the United States. A hundred years of legalized segregation followed the Civil War. While the Civil Rights Act of 1964 changed American law, it didn’t change all American hearts.

Consequently, many African Americans have been deprived of the generational wealth that comes with descending from a long line of property owners with stable families and access to the best education, jobs, and healthcare (or access to people with access).

We should continue to debate the wisest ways to address the inequities, but it helps good faith discussions when everyone concedes this important lesson of history: past sins have present consequences.

If we don’t hesitate to say we put a man on the moon, we won WWII, and we made Europe safe for democracy, then we shouldn’t hesitate to say we enslaved an entire class of image-bearers based on their skin color. Therefore, as a nation, we can celebrate that they were finally and righteously freed.

3. Good news delayed is good news denied.

In our earliest years as a nation, both black and white believers loved the Bible, but each had a different perspective on biblical themes. For many white believers, America was the promised land. For most black believers, America was Egypt. African American slaves closely identified with God’s people in bondage, making bricks without straw. White landowners closely identified with God’s people in blessing, abounding in milk and honey.

If we don’t hesitate to say we put a man on the moon and we won WWII, then we shouldn’t hesitate to say we enslaved an entire class of image-bearers based on their skin color.

Because there have been two American experiences, two Independence Days makes sense to me.

I speak as a white, Southern evangelical when I observe that many Memorial Day and Fourth of July sermons have found gospel analogies in our national narrative. Our founders, informed by Scripture, were willing to make great sacrifices to purchase our freedom from tyranny. Those early Americans spilled their blood on the soil of Lexington, Concord, Trenton, Yorktown, Bunker Hill, and Kings Mountain. Likewise, we’ve often heard, Jesus spilled his blood on the soil of Calvary to purchase our freedom from sin’s tyranny.

Some will complain that Juneteenth is too close to Independence Day, distracting from celebrating our nation’s birthday. But maybe we need this reminder that on July 4, 1776, Thomas Jefferson’s claim that “all men are created equal” didn’t include his slaves at Monticello. And no one can say that Jefferson, or any of the slaveholding founders, hadn’t been warned. Other Christians had been calling out the hypocrisy for years.

Considering both Independence Days together is a truer analogy of how the good news spread from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth. The initial impediment to the gospel’s advance was ethnocentric pride. The gospel isn’t just for the Jews but also for the Gentiles, and there’s no partiality with God.

Pressing the analogy further, today more than 2 billion people have never heard the gospel. Like slaves in Galveston, they’ve yet to hear about the emancipation decreed by our sovereign King. The elect from every nation have yet to hear the good news that they’ve been freed. Between us, there are geographical, linguistic, cultural, and racial barriers. But in the end,

How . . . will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? (Rom. 10:14–15)

In the many “Galvestons” of unreached peoples, God’s elect still wait in bondage to hear the royal proclamation of emancipation. Good news delayed is good news denied.

4. God hears the prayers of his suffering people.

With the psalmist, God’s people in every generation have lifted these words to the heavens: “How long, O LORD?” (Ps. 13:1). Countless slaves besides Booker T. Washington’s mother must have asked their heavenly Master the same question.

For many white believers, America was the promised land. For most black believers, America was Egypt.

Washington never knew his biological father, a white man who had his way with a neighbor’s slave. But his praying mother gave the world a biracial son who would turn to Scripture as a reliable guide. He founded the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama to educate the children of former slaves, equipping them to contribute to the American economy according to biblical principles. Today his legacy has suffered compared to some of his critics, especially W. E. B. Du Bois, who faulted the gradualist approach that compromised with segregation. Yet it’s still remarkable what Washington accomplished against all odds. He recruited and hired teachers like George Washington Carver, another former slave and follower of Christ and the most prominent black scientist of the early 20th century.

Carver wrote to Washington confirming the agreement in 1896, saying, “I am looking forward to a very busy, pleasant and profitable time at your college and shall be glad to cooperate with you in doing all I can through Christ who strengthened me to better the condition of our people.” And that’s what they did together until Washington died on November 14, 1915, a free man.


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