Commemoration and Celebration of “Juneteenth”: Marking the End of Slavery in the U.S.

This weekend June 19th marks the end of slavery in our Country with the adoption of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution on December 6, 1865. The occasion will be celebrated with parades, festivals, speeches, prayer services, and educational events. It has become known as “Juneteenth” in the African American Community, first celebrated in Texas on June 19th 1866 on the first anniversary of a Union General arriving in Texas to enforce Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation (1863). As Black Texans moved to other states, they brought Juneteenth with them. The celebrations gained popularity during the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s and many states have followed Texas’s lead by making Juneteenth a holiday commemorating the end of slavery, including New Jersey.

Just as June 19th brings pride and joy, another event that happened on May 31st through June 1st in 1921 casts a long shadow on race relations in the U.S., the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921. Without provocation, a white mob launched an assault on the thriving and prosperous African American community in Tulsa that left hundreds dead and injured, and homes looted and burned to the ground. Most of the dead who could be found were buried in a mass grave. There was nothing left of the town. It was uninhabitable. For decades afterward news and information about this massacre was stifled with few survivors to speak for the dead. This horrific massacre is only one of many in our history that are not commonly known.

This weekend let’s celebrate with our African American brothers and sisters on June 19th, mindful of the long road they have been traveling for freedom and equality, as well as all citizens’ roles in solidarity with them in this unfinished journey.

In October the Social Concerns Ministry will be offering a series of programs on Catholic Social Teaching, the first principle of which is “The Dignity of the Human Person and the Sanctity of Human Life, that every person has a unique and special dignity in light of the fact that he or she was made in the image and likeness of God; and therefore entitled to certain basic human rights”. Several of our popes have applied this cornerstone of Catholic Social Teaching to present- day society, some particularly with regard to race relations. A written record of such addresses starts with Pope Leo XIII (1878-1903), then Pope Pius XI (1922-1939), Pope St. John XXIII (1958-1963), Pope St. Paul VI (1963-1978), and continuing through Pope St. John Paul II, Benedict XVI to Pope Francis today. Pope Leo said,,”For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: Love your neighbor as yourself”. (Galatians 5:14)

Let us continue to strive to achieve social justice for African Americans and all vulnerable persons in our lifetimes. Below is a Prayer offered by St. John Paul II that speaks to this issue.

Lord God, our Father, you created the human being, man and woman, in your image and likeness, and you willed the diversity of peoples within the unity of the human family. At times, however, the equality of your sons and daughters has not been acknowledged and Christians have been guilty of attitudes of rejection and exclusion, consenting to acts of discrimination on the basis of racial and ethnic differences. Forgive us, and grant us the grace to heal the wounds still present in your community on account of sin, so that we will all feel ourselves to be your sons and daughters. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen


For additional information on the subject of Catholic Social Teaching relevant to this subject see:

“Open Wide Our Hearts: The Enduring Call to Love – A Pastoral Letter Against Racism” (2018)

Pope Francis’ third encyclical, Fratelli Tutti: On Fraternity and Social Friendship (overview & summary)

Some historical scholarship and articles relevant to this subject:

The Union Army and Juneteenth, 1865, The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History (Short history & teacher discussion questions to grade school, middle school and high school students)

Nearly two dozen Black massacres in American history: A searchable database of race massacres shows the depths of America’s struggle to live its principles of equality, by Eileen Rivers, USA TODAY (Updated May 31, 2021)[see chart]

Eric Foner, The Second Founding: How the Civil War and Reconstruction Remade the Constitution, (NY: W.W. Norton & Co., 2019)

Martin Luther King, Jr. and Melvin Washington, A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr. (NY: Harper & Row, 1986)

Questions, concerns, or to join the Social Concerns Ministry contact Barbara Albert by email or phone 201-247-2798.