Invisible: Bishop Peggy Johnson's message on Juneteenth
June 14, 2023
I will admit that I did not know what the word “Juneteenth” meant until I was a bishop serving in the Philadelphia Area. A pastor from the Peninsula-Delaware Conference explained that it was the day when the good news of the Emancipation Proclamation finally made it to Texas on June 19, 1865.
President Lincoln had issued this proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863, but it took more than two years for word to trickle down.
We can speculate that it was because there was no internet, but it had more to do with the fact that those enslaved Africans were invisible.
Their rights, their freedoms were not valued anywhere near as much as their back-breaking labor for the white, landowning masters, who coveted their work (and the wealth it brought) for as long as possible.
Early Juneteenth celebrations date back to 1866 and they spread across the South, largely among the churches. With the Great Migration and the Civil Rights movement Juneteenth observances continued across the continent.
By 1979 every U.S. state and the District of Columbia had formally recognized this holiday. It is now a national observance, and it is a step in the right direction towards acknowledging the boundless worth and dignity of the African American community.
Still there is work to do.
As much as this celebration shines a light of visibility on this community, we as a country are still in denial about the scourge of slavery and its legacy of inhumanity and discrimination that is alive and well in these United States today.
People of the New England Annual Conference, I call each church to say a word about Juneteenth this Sunday during worship. Teach people about its significance so no one in our churches leaves uninformed.
And I call each of us to do our part to dismantle racism, ignorance, and invisibility that is still in our hearts and lives as evidenced by the continuing pall of prejudice, racial violence, and bias in this country.