Juneteenth: A celebration of one of America’s greatest triumphs

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Marcus McWilliams
  • 460th Logistics Readiness Squadron commander

Signed into law as a federal holiday in 2021, Juneteenth, sometimes referred to as Emancipation Day, has a long tradition as a cultural holiday amongst black Americans. The holiday officially commemorates the occasion of the last American slaves being set free in 1865 in Texas, following the Civil War. I grew up knowing about Juneteenth even though I have no family ties to Texas; the day had a status in my family as one worth remembering. The abolition of slavery is one of the greatest triumphs in American history and laid the foundation for the multi-cultural democracy that we enjoy today. I feel a great sense of gratitude for the opportunities I’ve had as an American citizen, enhanced even more by my experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, seeing the people their struggling to maintain freedom, peace, and stability for their countries. Even though there are an estimated 27 million people still living in slavery today[1], it is important to not overlook the achievement of abolition in our own country.

In order to fully appreciate the signification of abolition in the United States, it is important to have some understanding of the history of slavery from a worldwide perspective. We often think of slavery as a uniquely American problem, but the sad reality is that slavery is one of the oldest human intuitions. Slavery has been present on every continent, in virtually every human culture in recorded history. Archeologists find evidence of slavery being common even in prehistoric times.[2] What is most remarkable then, is not that slavery existed in the Americas, but that it was ever abolished in the first place! Even more remarkable is that the abolition of slavery in the Americas helped lead to slavery being made illegal in almost every country in the world.

              The drive to eliminate slavery started amongst Protestant Christian groups in Britain in the early 1700s. For example, when the colony of Georgia (later one of the original 13 American colonies) was granted it’s charter by England’s King George in 1732, it was established with an explicit ban on slavery which lasted for 20 years, until the founding governor was ousted.[3] Many of America’s Founding Fathers were opposed to slavery but were more concerned with keeping the 13 original colonies together than abolishing slavery, and let the issue go largely unchallenged during the drafting of the Declaration of Independence and the American Revolution.

By the late 1700s, strong support had emerged for the elimination of slavery within the British government. In 1807 British parliament passed the Slave Trade Act (depicted in the 2006 film Amazing Grace) banning the selling and transportation of slaves worldwide. At this time, the British Empire included approximately 25% of the world’s population, so this act had an immediate impact on slavery worldwide. The British Royal Navy enforced the ban by patrolling traditional slave trade routes, boarding and capturing slave ships, freeing the captives, and returning crews to England to stand trial as pirates. While the British Royal Navy worked to limit the transport of slaves in the Atlantic, the slave trade continued nearly unabated via land and Mediterranean routes to/from the Middle East and North Africa. Historians estimate that more sub-Saharan Africans were sold into slavery in the Islamic world than in Europe, North, Central, and South America combined. In the United States, Congress coordinated legislative action with the UK, banning the importation of slaves the same year as British Parliament, 1807. However, the issue of selling and keeping existing slaves (and their children) in bondage would not be settled in the United States for nearly 60 more years.[4]

The wave of the abolition movement continued across Europe as the 19th century progressed. In 1833, Britain outlawed the holding of slaves completely in all its colonies, followed by France in 1848. Former Spanish colonies began outlawing slavery as they gained independence from the Spanish crown during the wars of independence in the 1810s, 20s, and 30s. [5] Slavery continued to be legal in a few countries into the late 1800s, including Brazil (abolished in 1888, 60 years after independence from Portugal) [6] and Cuba (abolished in 1886 while still a Spanish colony).[7] Back in the United States, the long simmering debate over abolition finally boiled over into the American Civil War in 1861. More than 620,000 soldiers on both sides lost their lives fighting over slavery, by far the bloodiest and costliest fight to abolish slavery in any country.[8] It is vital that we do not forget that 360,000 US Army soldiers gave their life fighting to uphold the same oath that we take today as service members; to support and uphold the Constitution[9], including the protections it gives to all citizens. Slavery was permanently abolished by the ratification of the 13th Amendment in 1889.

Juneteenth, a recognition of the abolition of slavery in the United States, is something that all American citizens should celebrate with pride. When I think of what Juneteenth means to me, I am filled with gratitude. I think of the privileges enjoyed by American citizens, including my parents who went to segregated elementary schools in the 1950s, but took advantage of every opportunity to make a better life for themselves and their kids. I think of the lessons they passed on to me and my sister, that hard work and persistence are required for success at anything. And I think of people around the world still trapped in bondage, yearning for the basic freedoms we enjoy as citizens. I think of the Uyghurs in China, people being bought and sold in countries with failing governments, and those trapped in sex slavery worldwide. Juneteenth recognizes America’s contribution to the worldwide effort to end slavery, a fight that continues to this day. America’s abolition movement also paved the way for the recognition (over time) of the full rights of citizenship for formerly enslaved black Americans, which was a vital step on America’s path to taking its place as leader of the free world and forging a path as home to the freest and most ethnically diverse democracy the world has ever seen. This year, celebrate Juneteenth, one of the greatest triumphs in American history, with pride!



[1] Reuters: Up to 27 million trapped in slavery worldwide: U.S., 18 May 2011; https://www.reuters.com/article/us-slavery/up-to-27-million-trapped-in-slavery-worldwide-u-s-idUSTRE74H63V20110518

[2] The Cambridge World history of Slavery: Volume 1, The Ancient Mediterranean World, Edited by Eltis et al, 2011

[3] New Georgia Encyclopedia; Trustee Georgia 1732-1752; https://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/articles/history-archaeology/trustee-georgia-1732-1752/

[4] The Cambridge World history of Slavery: Volume 4, AD 1804 to AD 2016, Edited by Eltis et al, 2017

[5] Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World, By David Brion Davis

[6] US Census Bureau, Brazil Independence Day (1822); https://www.census.gov/newsroom/stories/brazil-independence-day.html

[7] Britannica, Cuban Independence Movement; https://www.britannica.com/event/Cuban-Independence-Movement

[8] Ohio State Univ., Statistics on the Civil War & Medicine; https://ehistory.osu.edu/exhibitions/cwsurgeon/cwsurgeon/statistics

[9] US Army Center of Military History, Oaths of enlistment and Oaths of Office; https://history.army.mil/html/faq/oaths.html