Amid the Civil War, whether the Confederacy was ready or not, Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on September 22, 1862, and it came into effect on January 1, 1863. When I was young, I always imagined soon-to-be liberated folk counting down the seconds to midnight, anxious for their rightful freedom. For years I believed the story of our liberation from slavery ended there, but like many of us, I was mistaken. The message of freedom took time to spread across the United States and break the chains of liberated souls. Various celebrations of emancipation or “jubilees” occurred on September 22, January 1, April 6, August 1, and November 1, 1863 (among other dates). There was no one uniform date because the news of freedom did not uniformly reach Black folk. Many found out about the new reality of America at different times. So, the days that were chosen for the celebration were diverse and held unique meanings for different groups of Black folks in different regions. One date in particular, however, held a special significance.
General Robert E. Lee surrendered, and the Civil War was brought to an end in 1863. However, The Army of Trans-Mississippi and other rebels continued to fight, while some farm owners further South simply refused to free their slaves. The army was later defeated, and this paved the way for the message of freedom to reach the most remote areas in the South. On June 19, 1865, Union Major General Gordon arrived in Galveston, Texas, and took command of 2,000 troops. He then began the work of enforcing the freedom rightfully granted to Black folk in America. Between 1863-1865, freedom came for some, but it wasn’t until June 19 that freedom came for all. The ultimate Jubilee had arrived and solidified the reality that we are not free until we are all free. Can this concept of Jubilee, essential to Juneteenth itself, play a role in our spirituality and life?
In the Hebrew culture, Jubilee is the year at the end of seven cycles of shmita (Sabbatical years). Leviticus 25:8-13 details how the year of Jubilee was a kind of reset. The land was returned to its original owners, and people returned to their families. What I always focused on when reading this verse was the parallel that soon-to-be freed people of color also zoomed in on. Hebrew slaves and prisoners were freed every Jubilee or every seven years. Hebrews that were imprisoned or in bondage knew when their Jubilee was coming. They knew freedom and liberation were on the way. Even though they were under the unbearable weight of being owned or shut out, they clung to the truth and reality that freedom was always due and was always on the way. Black folk in bondage recalled this term when naming the days they celebrated their freedom but also recalled jubilee when looking forward to the freedom they believed would come. They saw how God moved on behalf of the Hebrew people that were in bondage and imprisoned and saw themselves in that story and reality.
How can we see ourselves in that story? The wounds of the tumultuous year that was 2020 are still fresh. Continuous injustice, a deadly pandemic, and ever-present political threats have truly tested and pushed many of us to the brink. The Black community and other communities of color have felt this the most. I can imagine the personal struggles we have all gone through or are still suffering from, and we are looking for deliverance and relief for our burdens. Psalms 10:15 makes it quite clear that God is in the business of delivering us from our suffering; He delivers days of Jubilee to all of us, individually and as a community. No matter what forces beyond our control bound us in chains and suppress the joy we can create in this life, our day of Jubilee is coming. This legacy and tradition of fighting for the freedom and equity we want and patiently waiting for the day of deliverance are traced back to our ancestors, who also awaited that very same day and went on to create the tradition of celebrating the day when they received liberation. When we celebrate Juneteenth, we honor the tradition we live out in our struggles and the fights we face as a community. The day of Jubilee always comes. It’s just a matter of when.