A group of freed slaves gather on the plantation of Confederate general Thomas F. Drayton in Hilton Head, South Carolina, during the Union occupation of the property, 1862. (Photo by © CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

Editor’s Note: Peniel E. Joseph is the Barbara Jordan chair in ethics and political values and founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, where he is a professor of history. He is the author of “The Third Reconstruction: America’s Struggle for Racial Justice in the Twenty-First Century.” The views expressed here are his own. View more opinion on CNN.

CNN  — 

Juneteenth 2023 takes place at a critical moment in American history. Texas, the birthplace of Juneteenth, has emerged as a leading proponent of legislative efforts to ban the teaching of Black history in K-12 schools, shutter diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) offices in higher education institutions (including the University of Texas at Austin, where I teach) and outlaw diversity statements by potential job candidates.

Peniel Joseph

This stunning turn of events is unfolding a mere three years after the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis inspired roiling national and international protests, along with vows from politicians, business leaders, artists and ordinary citizens to confront America’s long history of anti-Black racism –and pledges from many institutions, from professional sports teams to the federal government, to work to eliminate the manifestations of White supremacy that formed a grotesque archipelago of injustice across our nation.

We know those promises did not come to pass. On Friday, for example, the Justice Department released a report that found “systemic problems” led to Floyd’s death, but also found that a significant number of police killings resulted from “unconstitutional” deadly force and discrimination against citizens and retaliation against protesters.

How do we reconcile the racial progress that seemingly took place in the immediate days, weeks and months after Floyd’s murder with the recent years of backlash that threaten to not only undo recent progress but roll back decades-long victories in the arenas of voting rights, affirmative action, reproductive justice and the teaching of Black history in public schools and higher education?

That question feels unanswerable in our current moment, but Juneteenth remains a potential North Star for American democracy because it is a freedom story rooted in the nation’s original sin of racial slavery. The myth of Juneteenth presents the date of June 19, 1865, as a time when Black Texans in Galveston finally received the news of their freedom.

The truth is more complicated. Blacks in Galveston, Texas working on wharves heard news of freedom long before Major General Gordon Granger arrived with the support of around two thousand northern troops. Confederates fleeing cities, towns and states such as Louisiana and Georgia transported thousands of enslaved Black people to Texas, the state where the final battles of the Civil War were fought as late as May of 1865, a month after Robert E. Lee’s surrender to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse in Virginia.

Granger’s order revolved around three points: the “absolute equality” between Blacks and Whites, the need for the newly freed Black men and women to remain on plantations and work as contracted labor and the admonition of Black folk to stay away from military bases and camps. The latter were areas that offered news of long-lost loved ones, potential medical care, food and the opportunity to fully realize the prospect of citizenship that remained perhaps more fragile during these early days and weeks of Reconstruction than during the war itself.

The first celebration of Juneteenth took place in 1866 in Texas, with Black Americans struggling for dignity and citizenship in a state where many White Texans roundly rejected the Reconstruction’s promise of multiracial democracy. The irony of banning DEI offices from the state’s flagship University of Texas at Austin lies in the fact that it perpetuates the racial animus, exclusion and indignity that resulted in no Black people being able to attend, teach or lead a publicly funded institution of higher education founded in 1883, less than two decades after that fateful Juneteenth in Galveston.

How do we celebrate Juneteenth in 2023? Is it a source of pride, shame or some combination of both? What should the holiday’s relationship to the Fourth of July be? Should we regard Juneteenth as the nation’s true Independence Day or acknowledge that, despite heroic efforts by historic and modern-day abolitionists, we have yet to achieve the freedom dreams that so many Black and Whites who stood in solidarity then and now, fought and died for?

As a Black scholar-activist and native New Yorker whose made Texas my family adopted home for almost a decade, Juneteenth has taken on new significance for me. It represents a time of reflection, mourning even, over the broken promises of equality that have greeted Black efforts at citizenship since that day in Galveston in 1865. Commemorating the lives and legacies of enslaved people who defiantly loved a nation that refused to love them back offers us a renewed opportunity to build a new consensus around American citizenship and democracy.

In this sense Juneteenth’s deeper history is more inspiring than the story we have been popularly told. The cracks in our national history, the divides in our attempts to recount this story to our children and our children’s children, tell the story of a democratic experiment that Black Texans helped progress through unenviable circumstances in the aftermath of a catastrophic civil war. And in doing so they bequeathed a legacy of Black Texans celebrating a kind of freedom beyond emancipation, one that could usher in a new era of multiracial democracy.

Texas plays an excruciatingly critical role here. More Black people, almost four million, live in the Lone Star state than any other place in the entire country. Black Texans possess a fierce pride in the meaning of Juneteenth for the rest of the nation. Beyond the cookouts, barbecues, parades, and celebrations is an understanding that Black Texans—by celebrating and commemorating Juneteenth—staked a centuries-long claim to share their American story of freedom that continues to resonate in our own time.

The most amazing aspect of Juneteenth is not that Black Texans were late to the freedom party being celebrated in parts of the nation. Black folks in Galveston knew they were under siege, locked in the belly of a dying corpse of the Confederacy. They retained the faith of their ancestors in their inherent dignity, a belief they leveraged into creating the most expansive vision of citizenship the nation had ever seen. They built churches and schools.

Houston’s Emancipation Park was established in 1872 through the purchase of 10 acres of land by Black formerly enslaved activists and preachers John Henry “Jack” Yates, Richard Brock, Reverend David Elias Dibble and Richard Allen. Emancipation Park, which is now owned by the city of Houston, remains a vibrant repository—complete with a cultural center depicting beautiful and historically poignant photos of dignified and diligent Black women and men who dreamed of being able to flourish in a country they loved fervently enough to stay and fight for.

Today, Emancipation Park features an artistic rendering of the four founders—reimagined as pillars—of a park dedicated to reimagining what democracy might look like if America were courageous enough to tell the full story of its past in ways that would indelibly shape its present and future.

Get Our Free Weekly Newsletter

When I look at this park, I think about the first generation of Juneteenth celebrations, which faced a backlash even more chilling than the one I’m living through now. Black women, men and children were victimized by convict leasing that helped set the stage for mass incarceration. Black codes prevented African Americans from voting, sitting on juries, engaging in just labor contracts, building wealth, and otherwise exercising citizenship rights. Racial segregation—sometimes referred to as Jim Crow—ensured that Black folk would not be part of the first or any class at the University of Texas until the 1950s.

This is the history many assumed America had overcome through the Second Reconstruction (the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s) and the election of a Black president. In fact, periods of Reconstruction in America have, historically, featured the striking juxtapositions of racial progress and backlash. These are not aberrations, nor do they represent the whole of American society and history. Rather they reveal the duality at the heart of our current dilemma. The nation, like people, can embrace two narratives simultaneously.

Juneteenth reminds us of the unyielding faith and dignity of generations of Black folks whose embrace of an imperfect brand of freedom helped pave the way for contemporary efforts to finally and permanently advance racial justice and democracy – for Black people, and for all Americans.