Reflection on Juneteenth Commemoration from Rev. Dr. John Welch, PhD

On June 19, 1865, when federal troops entered Galveston, Texas, the emancipation of every enslaved Black American was effectively enacted. This was 2 ½ years after Lincoln’s proclamation. To say the delay was due to the late arrival of the news from federal troops would be exceedingly gracious. Instead, it speaks to the defiant attitude of the Texas that surfaces periodically even now.

The Emancipation only unleashed a series of responses designed to protect the privileged and cement the “caste system,” identified by Isabel Wilkerson, that was designed in America’s economy. Due to the 13th Amendment’s weak attempt to abolish slavery, new systems were created that guaranteed labor force that would keep the economy in the South growing with even national benefit. In some cases, the labor remained free; in other cases, it was cheap. From sharecropping to forced labor camps in the southern mines in the late 18th early 19th centuries, Black bodies were subjected to a work culture that was in no way liberating. Douglas Blackman’s 2008 book, Slavery by Another Name, explains how the fortunes of the U.S. Steel Corporation were built on the backs of Blacks who were forcibly imprisoned in the southern mines which were owned by the company and its subsidiaries. This was only made possible by
the weak language of the 13th Amendment, which allowed for creation of crime codes used to incarcerate and inflict excessive prison sentences on African American men.

The 20th century saw the growth of “urban removal” in the name of “urban renewal,” thereby displacing many African Americans from their homes and businesses through imminent domain practices, gentrification, and the creation of the prison industrial complex which was just another effort to create a cheap labor market with Black and Brown bodies. Just recently, the destruction of the Greenwood community in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1921, also known as Black Wall Street, where 300 Blacks were killed and 190 Black businesses were destroyed, was brought to light. At that time Black residents remained silent on the matter for fear of retribution. So, for decades, their descendants and many in the rest of the country knew nothing about what happened. But Christian scripture reminds us that what happens in the dark will eventually come to light, and it now has. With the assault and killing of Blacks by police it seems prison is the safest place for young Blacks, especially when a simple traffic stop can result in the loss of life.

The evolving “wokeness” of Americans in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, Brianna Taylor and others have launched an overselling of diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts in various institutions. My concern is that these efforts will do no more than add an array of color to a rotted house instead of doing the hard work of examining the infestation or infection that is causing the rotting in the first place.

So, what about all of this? What about the centuries of harm imposed on Blacks in this country? We cannot celebrate the date of shadow liberation when all that has transpired since then has done nothing more than allow for the creation of variant systems of slavery. So, for me, Juneteenth does not mark the end of slavery; it marks the commencement of a new system of oppression and at this point, I cannot allow myself in good faith to celebrate Juneteenth and get distracted by a holiday marking my renewed oppression. I hope and pray others see it this way as well.

Rev. Dr. John C. Welch, PhD

Chairman, Gamaliel Board of Directors