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Dean's Statement on Juneteenth, 2020

Dear ILR Community,

As announced in President Pollack’s message, we are observing Juneteenth today as an official university holiday. As this is the first time that Cornell has observed Juneteenth as an official holiday, I thought it would be valuable for us to reflect on the historical context and significance of this holiday and the events it commemorates. We asked ILR’s own historians to help us by providing some reflections on this day, its context, and recommendations for readings.

Following are some comments from Ileen Devault and from Tej Nagaraja, who is joining our labor history group this summer. Their comments provide reflections on both the promise and hope of the liberation of African-Americans from slavery and the continuation of racial injustice in America. I thank Ileen and Tej for sharing their thoughts and hope that you also find them valuable as we take this holiday to reflect on the ongoing struggle to achieve racial equality in our society and in our own community.

In the coming weeks and months, I will be working with ILR’s Diversity & Inclusion Council to develop concrete steps we can take to be a more inclusive community. We will also be working on ensuring that issues of racial inequality and justice are being addressed in our teaching and programs. For today, please join me in taking time to reflect on this holiday celebrating one key step along the long arc of Black history in America.  


Alex Colvin


Reflections on Juneteenth from Ileen Devault

Juneteenth celebrates the arrival of Union General Gordon Granger in Galveston, Texas, on June 19, 1865, and his reading of the declaration that the Civil War had ended and all slaves were freed. Texas was, at that time, the westernmost slave-holding state in the U.S. Before telephones (and even telegraphs in some states) and television and radio (let alone the internet!), and at the end of a 4-year-long Civil War, we should not be surprised that it took just over 10 weeks for the news to travel to Texas. And it should also not surprise us that Juneteenth has become an increasingly popular celebration around the country, particularly in black communities.

But during this time of protest and pandemic, I would like to argue that Juneteenth (June 19, 1865) is also something more than “the end of slavery.” In fact, I would argue that in many ways the end of the Civil War marks a type of emancipation for US blacks, but also marks a hardening of what we now call “systemic racism.” This occurred in many ways, but I would like to mention just two of them right now:

This one is for ILR (as well as for all US blacks): Once the Civil War ended, the Federal Government moved to make sure that the economy of the Southern, former Confederate, states was not interrupted. Freed slaves had already asked for the famous “40 acres and a mule,” but if they had received that they most likely would have planted food crops to feed their families. But both Southern landowners and Northern textile manufacturers wanted cash crops instead, and particularly, cotton. If former slaves (“freedmen,” as they were called) would just keep working for their former owners and sign a contract to do so, they would achieve true “freedom,” Northern working-class style: they would be wage earners with the right to contract. That right to contract was fundamental to their being deemed “free” for many in Congress. In fact, what they signed were usually “contracts” which allotted them a plot of land and then required them to pay “rent” in the form of cotton. This form of share-cropping quickly devolved into what became known as “debt peonage”: at the end of the year, southern blacks would show up with their cotton crops only to be told that they had fallen short of the amount they owed and would therefore not be able to move to another place but rather would have to keep growing cotton on the same land (usually for their former master) in order to pay off what became a never-dwindling debt. “Free” blacks would remain trapped in the very bottom rungs of the economy.

My second example of the entrenchment of a system which distinguished people by race (“systemic racism”) has to do with post-Civil War southern laws. When the Confederacy lost the Civil War, the U.S. government told southern states that they would have to get rid of their pages and pages of laws known as “Slave Codes,” which were the laws which governed all the activities of black slaves in those states. So the former Confederate states did that. They took the old Slave Codes and replaced the word “slave” with the word “black,” and the word “master” with the word “employer.” “Slave Codes” became “Black Codes,” laying out laws that only applied to blacks in the South: setting curfews for blacks, requiring blacks to carry “permission slips” from their employers in order to travel from their farms, determining which businesses blacks could or could not enter, etc. In other words, these “Black Codes” became the basis for what we all later came to know as Jim Crow laws, setting separate schools and toilets and drinking fountains and sections of theaters and seats in public transportation and all the rest.

I do not mean to be depressing. We should still celebrate the celebration of Juneteenth. The day has become an important marker of the resilience and strength of the black community in the U.S. But we should also continue to examine the ways in which the systemic racism hatched in slavery and hardened after the Civil War continues to impact our lives.

“Emancipation” of Texas slaves did not magically happen on June 19, 1865, in Galveston, when General Granger said, “Slavery has ended!” Emancipation is not a single event; it is a process which continues and will continue until we finally reach a day when a Philando Castile is no longer stopped by police and shot in his car; when a Breonna Taylor is no longer shot in her bed; when an Ahmaud Arbery is not shot in the back for jogging while black; when a Trayvon Martin is not shot while walking to his grandmother’s house; when a George Floyd is not killed because the policeman with a knee on his neck doesn’t move when Floyd says, “I can’t breathe.”

The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander

Movie: “At the River I Stand,” about Memphis and the strike of sanitation workers before MLK’s assassination (58 minutes):

Workers on Arrival, Joe Trotter, Jr. (new! 2019 book)
Battling the Plantation Mentality, Laurie Green
The Origins of Southern Sharecropping, Edward Royce
From Bondage to Contract, Amy Stanley


Reflections on Juneteenth from Tej Nagaraja

Across three centuries, Juneteenth has been an occasion for Black Americans to mark a climactic moment in the long struggle for emancipation and abolition. President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was issued in 1863. It was in 1865 that the Confederacy surrendered, and not until June 19 that Union Army troops reached the slavocracy’s remaining bastion in Galveston, Texas to formally alert of and enforce emancipation. Major-General Gordon Granger announced that the enslaved were free, the enslavers were masters no more, and that all deserved equal rights. It would take until the Thirteenth Amendment’s ratification in December, to end slavery in Delaware and Kentucky. As W.E.B. Du Bois richly demonstrated in his landmark history, Black Reconstruction, the overthrow of slavery was not a top-down triumph from the federal government. Rather, abolition was driven by a bottom-up dynamic of working people’s self-emancipation. This involved a wartime ‘general strike’ of hundreds of thousands of enslaved people who enacted escape, rebellion, sabotage, work stoppage and military enlistment to shatter the slave power. Since 1865, America’s struggles between racial oppression and equality have resonated across key realms such as work, war, criminal justice and social-movement activism.

After 1865, Black Americans celebrated June 19 with musical parades, heritage rituals, joyous feasts and political convenings pursuing recognition, representation, redistribution, reparation and re-organization. The 1860s-1870s Reconstuction was a period of remarkable multiracial democracy, with formerly-enslaved voters and politicians in the South, leading the first wave of labor rights and public-good institutions for Black and white alike. As Tera Hunter shows in To ‘Joy My Freedom, Black women led a vibrant labor movement—from domestic workers’ strikes in Jackson, Mississippi (1866) and Galveston, Texas (1877), to the massive Atlanta, Georgia washerwomen’s strike of 1881. Yet what Du Bois called ‘abolition democracy’ was betrayed by white political and economic leaders nationwide. Over the 1880s-1910s, a counter-revolution of organized terrorism and anti-democratic law-making would ultimately enshrine Jim Crow. In this turn-of-the-century context, a formal celebration of ‘Juneteenth’  as a people’s Emancipation Day and Independence Day took on a more embattled meaning. In an era of overwhelming employer authoritarianism and white-supremacist repression, workers asserted their right to this particular holiday. They did this so that loved ones who worked away from home could visit, and loved ones with schedules split across agricultural and industrialized work could coordinate their social time together. In East Texas, determined Black workers forced the sawmills to shutdown every June 19, sometimes securing multiple days for community leisure and solidarity-building. In their book Envisioning Emancipation, Deborah Willis and Barbara Krauthamer contextualize a treasury of photographs of how emancipation was experienced and cherished, from the nineteenth into the twentieth century.

Over the 1910s-1970s of mass migrations and freedom movements, Juneteenth celebrations spread among Black Americans across the South, North and overseas. In the aftermath of Martin Luther King’s assassination, Coretta Scott King and others led the 1968 Poor People's Campaign for economic justice and workers’ rights for Black and non-Black people too. This reinvigorated Juneteenth as a Solidarity Day. Labor struggles were a key front in the civil rights movement, from factory and sanitation workers in Tennessee to healthcare workers in New York and South Carolina. The latter context is powerfully captured in the documentary film I Am Somebody by Madeline Anderson. Campaigns for government recognition of Martin Luther King Day as well as Juneteenth, took off after 1979. Into the twenty-first century, Juneteenth is marked in workplaces, military sites, prisons and communities across the U.S. and the wider world, as Black people commemorate the past and imagine the future.

In recent years, and now given the Justice for George Floyd uprising of 2020—holidays such as Martin Luther King Day, May Day and Juneteenth take on a renewed resonance for anti-racist, working-class dignity for Black people—beating a path towards justice for all. If the civil-rights era was a ‘Second Reconstruction,’ activists such as William J. Barber II have anticipated a coming reckoning for a Third Reconstruction—to defeat mass incarceration and economic inequality with another historic, democratic transformation. Over recent months, the pandemic, economic and policing crises have folded onto each other. Labor actions and worker advocacy among frontline and essential workers have linked two or even all three of these concerns as a holistic, intersecting public-health emergency. This June 19, 2020, dockworkers are shutting down many ports in honor of Juneteenth and George Floyd. Healthcare workers are speaking out about the links between pandemic and policing issues. Black Lives groups are hosting many dozens of demonstrations across the United States and beyond.