I was blessed to attend the White House signing ceremony on June 17 for the legislation making Juneteenth a national holiday.
This was truly a blessing because my ancestors were enslaved to Michael Brabamour Menard, the founder of Galveston, Texas.
They were religious folks, members of the First African Baptist Church (now Avenue L) founded in 1848.
They were familiar with and loved the biblical narrative of Moses going down to Egypt to tell ol’ Pharaoh to let his people go.
They sang spirituals like “Steal Away, Steal Away to Jesus” and they were also acquainted with the biblical concept of Jubilee.
This concept, found in Leviticus 25:10 says, “And ye shall hallow the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof: it shall be a jubilee unto you, and ye shall return every man unto his possession, and ye shall return every man unto his family.”
As you can imagine, this biblical concept of Jubilee – a season of freedom, joy, peace and justice – resonated greatly with the African American slaves.
It has been said that this concept was always foremost in their minds – a day when they would be free. A day when they could rejoice. A day when they could return to their families.
So, needless to say, when General Granger Gordon rode into Galveston and on June 19, 1865, summoned the slaves together and made the announcement that they were free, it was a day of Jubilee! It was a day of great rejoicing.
They shouted and screamed and danced and sang. On that day, many made their way to Galveston’s Reedy Chapel AME Church, and there, they gave thanks and praise to God for giving them their own personal day of jubilee.
Therefore, as we continue to reflect on Juneteenth becoming a national holiday 156 years later, let us make it a time of great rejoicing.
Let us make it a time to give thanks and praise to God for setting African Americans and all people free!
But not only should this be an annual day of great rejoicing, it should also be a day of reimagining.
On that day, my ancestors had to reimagine their lives. They had to shape a new destiny, including as they did, changing their name.
In spite of the “happy slave” narratives that we’re told, they hated slavery – a sentiment expressed in spirituals like “Oh Freedom, Oh freedom over me, before I’d be a slave, I’d lay buried in my grave and go home to my Lord and be free.”
And so, as we begin a new week following the first Juneteenth observed as a federal holiday, let us also reimagine.
Let us advocate and urge federal lawmakers to pass the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Restoration Act.
Let us advocate at the federal, state and local level for a nation where resources are distributed equitably, and all people are treated fairly.
Finally, sadly, in too many places we see vestiges of slavery.
We’ve seen it in the killings of George Floyd, Breona Taylor and Ahmed Arbery. We see it in incessant racist microaggressions – daily acts of hatred and intolerance.
We see it in the Confederate monuments and statues that still stand, and so Juneteenth should also be an annual day of repentance.
Can you imagine what it took for slavery to proliferate? It took the death of millions in the middle passage. It took greed and racial hatred and spiritual wickedness in high places.
Therefore, each year on Juneteenth, let us and our entire nation repent of all these things and may we especially confront and seek to eradicate racism in all of its forms.
Juneteenth is a day of Jubilee. A day for us to repent, reimagine and most importantly rejoice, because great is the Lord and greatly to be praised!
Pastor of the East Washington Heights Baptist Church in Washington, DC, and a Juneteenth descendant.