On June 19, 1865, Union soldiers  freed the last slaves. When we celebrate their freedom, we celebrate America itself. Condoleezza Rice for The Free Press.
Annie Moore Schwein was born enslaved in Corpus Christi, Texas. (Dorothea Lange via Getty Images)

Condoleezza Rice: Juneteenth Is Our Second Independence Day

On June 19, 1865, Union soldiers arrived in Galveston Bay, Texas, and freed the last enslaved people in the Confederacy. When we celebrate their freedom, we celebrate America itself.

Toward the end of my term as Secretary of State, I had the opportunity to visit the National Archives in Washington, D.C. Permanently displayed in the Rotunda alongside the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution of the United States, and the Bill of Rights is the Emancipation Proclamation. As I stood reading, I felt the presence of my ancestors. I said a little prayer of thanks to them—and to God—for the great fortune of being born American.

Most Americans are familiar with the Emancipation Proclamation. Issued by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863, it declared freedom for millions of slaves living in the South. Today, however, many Americans remain unaware that two more years would pass before the enslaved living in Texas learned of their freedom. 

It was on June 19, 1865, that Union soldiers arrived in the farthest territory of the Confederate states—in Galveston Bay, Texas—bringing with them the news that slavery had been abolished. Major General Gordon Granger read out General Order No. 3: “The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them, becomes that between employer and hired labor. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages.” 

While there was still a long road ahead—it would be nearly 100 years until the Civil Rights Act was passed—this was an important step for the 250,000 people still enslaved in Texas, and one they probably didn’t believe would ever come to pass.

Bob Lemmons was born enslaved in Carrizo Springs, Texas, around 1850. (Dorothea Lange via Getty Images)

A century after General Granger marched into Galveston Bay with those Union soldiers, I was growing up in Birmingham, Alabama, which was then the most segregated city in the country. My father couldn’t vote with reliability. We couldn’t go to the movie theater, sit at the lunch counter, or go to school with white children.

I was eight years old when, on a Sunday morning in September 1963, the 16th Street Baptist Church was bombed. I felt the blast a few blocks away in the church where my father was the pastor. Four little girls, two of whom I knew, were killed.

But our community rallied and held close to one another. Despite the struggles of those years, we knew how far we had come from that fateful day in 1865.

Every year on Juneteenth, my parents and I talked about what our ancestors must have felt the moment they found out they were free and used it as an inspiration to keep seeking a better life here in America.

But even though my family has been celebrating Juneteenth since my childhood, it wasn’t until 2021 that Congress voted, almost unanimously, to make Juneteenth National Independence Day a federal holiday. Because many Americans are unfamiliar with its significance, some, perhaps understandably, wonder why it needed national recognition at all. After all, all Americans celebrate the Fourth of July—the ultimate celebration of our nation’s founding, of our independence and our liberty. 

To me, Juneteenth is a recognition of what I call America’s second founding. 

Despite our nation’s extraordinary founding documents about equality, this country was founded as a slave-owning state. That is our birth defect. But the words in those carefully crafted documents—written by great men who were themselves flawed human beings—ultimately lit the way toward a more perfect union. In some sense, the history of the United States is a story of striving to make their soaring words—We the People—real to every American. It’s the story of becoming what we profess to be.

This man was born enslaved in Greene County, Georgia. (Dorothea Lang via Getty Images)

When I was sworn in as 66th Secretary of State by Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, I glanced up at a portrait of Benjamin Franklin in the State Department. I wondered what he would have thought of this great-granddaughter of slaves and child of Jim Crow Birmingham pledging to defend the Constitution of the United States, which had infamously counted her ancestors as “three-fifths” of a person. I wanted to believe that Franklin would have liked history’s turn toward justice and taken my appointment in stride. 

Today, just as I once did with my parents, I will celebrate Juneteenth. I will think about my ancestors and what they must have felt when they were liberated from slavery. And I will give thanks for being born in a country where such moral progress is possible. That is worth celebrating not just by black Americans but by all of us. 

Condoleezza Rice is the director of the Hoover Institution at Stanford. She was the 66th Secretary of State.

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