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Emancipation Proclamation in 1863


By Peter Sloniewsky

Juneteenth, a holiday that commemorates the end of slavery in the United States — a “second independence day” — was celebrated on Wednesday, June 19.

Upon the release of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, slaves were legally freed throughout all of the Confederate states, but could not be fully implemented in areas still under Confederate control. Because of this, enslaved people in the westernmost reaches of the Confederacy would not be free until years later. These people were emancipated on June 19, 1865, when a group of Union troops announced that the quarter-million enslaved Black people in Galveston, Texas, would be freed by executive decree. This day came to be known as Juneteenth, widely recognized in African American communities but remaining largely unknown to most Americans.

On June 17, 2021, President Joe Biden (D) signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act into law that officially made the day a federal holiday. It is intended to act as a precursor to the Fourth of July, demonstrating that the liberty we celebrate on that day was imperfect. It guides us to consider the ways that our perception of freedom has evolved, and allows new groups and generations to reflect on what more can and should be done.

Across Long Island, there were a variety of planned Juneteenth celebrations and projects that intended to honor Black history and culture. 

Suffolk County commemorations

Last year, the Suffolk County Legislature created a freedom trail, inclusive of sites dating back to the 17th century, in celebration of Juneteenth. This freedom trail includes 47 sites of Black history across the county, such as churches, monuments and the site of the founding of the first African-American baseball team in Babylon.

Over the past weekend, the Hicksville Juneteenth Cultural Festival and the Elmont Juneteenth Celebration Festival provided opportunities to celebrate the holiday in Nassau County.

The role of this holiday as a time for reflection on the meaning of freedom, as well as the modern history of race relations in our country and communities, gains special importance considering the long history of discrimination across Long Island. Both Nassau and Suffolk counties remain some of the most segregated areas in the United States, according to a Nov. 17, 2019, Newsday article. Of the 291 communities on Long Island, a majority of its Black residents live in just 11 of them. 

This problem has in fact worsened in past years, according to the organization ERASE Racism. Between 2004 and 2016, six additional school districts on Long Island reached a level defined by the organization as “intensely segregated.”

In fact, much of the history of many modern segregation practices were born nearby, in Levittown. Owners of the mass-produced suburb strictly abided by Federal Housing Administration codes known today as “redlining,” which kept racial groups separated, as well as including in the community bylaws that “the tenant agrees not to permit the premises to be … occupied by any person other than members of the Caucasian race.”

Civil rights activism on Long Island, mostly spearheaded by the Congress of Racial Equality — comparable to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference in the South — was regularly faced with resistance including active Ku Klux Klan membership across the Island throughout the 20th century. Even today, the white-supremacist Proud Boys have been shown to rally in Long Island communities. During the wave of Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, Proud Boys tried to forcibly block 100 protesters from marching down the streets of Merrick, which is more than 90% white.

Juneteenth remains a solemn reminder across the country and to Long Islanders specifically that the pathway to true freedom is not yet complete.