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Observing Juneteenth with a reading of the Emancipation Proclamation


Today, the country observes Juneteenth. The holiday marks the arrival of U.S. Army troops in Galveston, Texas, on June 19, 1865. The troops told some of the last enslaved Americans that they were free. They were enforcing the Emancipation Proclamation, in which President Abraham Lincoln decreed some enslaved people to be free on January 1, 1863. We're about to hear that document in its entirety. But first, we want to hear from Nathan Connolly, an associate professor of history at Johns Hopkins University.

NATHAN CONNOLLY: The initial Emancipation Proclamation came as a consequence of almost two years of people fleeing plantations. So by the time the Proclamation was formally issued in January of '63, it was there to effectively punish states that were in rebellion and encourage those who believed in the military power and potential of African-descended people to basically know that there was going to be freedom at the end of this military struggle - or at least as a critical part of it.

FADEL: And as Connolly told me, the Proclamation represents both freedom and an unfulfilled promise.

CONNOLLY: So going as far back as Frederick Douglass' very famous speech in 1852 - "What To The Slave Is The Fourth Of July?" - it was very clear that the nation's Independence Day was not the same thing as a Black Independence Day. Juneteenth is a kind of acknowledgment that July Fourth was incomplete, but also that it required very active efforts on the parts of everyday Black people, the military and the federal government - that there is a kind of frailty to freedom.

FADEL: It's historian Nathan Connolly at Johns Hopkins University. And now, our NPR colleagues read the Emancipation Proclamation.


MICHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: (Reading) By the president of the United States of America, a proclamation - whereas, on the 22nd day of September in the year of our Lord 1862, a proclamation was issued by the president of the United States containing, among other things, the following, to wit...

LINDSAY TOTTY, BYLINE: (Reading) That on the first day of January, in the year of our Lord 1863, all persons held as slaves within any state or designated part of a state, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States shall be then, thenceforward and forever free.

KELLEY DICKENS, BYLINE: (Reading) And the executive government of the United States, including the military and naval authority thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons and will do no act or acts to repress such persons or any of them in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom.

RODNEY CARMICHAEL, BYLINE: (Reading) That the executive will, on the first day of January aforesaid, by proclamation, designate the states and parts of states, if any, in which the people thereof, respectively, shall then be in rebellion against the United States.

JUANA SUMMERS, BYLINE: (Reading) And the fact that any state or the people thereof shall on that day be, in good faith, represented in the Congress of the United States by members chosen thereto at elections, wherein a majority of the qualified voters of such state shall have participated, shall, in the absence of strong, countervailing testimony, be deemed conclusive evidence that such state and the people thereof are not then in rebellion against the United States.

DWANE BROWN, BYLINE: (Reading) Now, therefore I, Abraham Lincoln, president of the United States, by virtue of the power in me vested as commander in chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, in time of actual armed rebellion against the authority and government of the United States, and as a fit and necessary war measure for suppressing said rebellion...

MARC RIVERS, BYLINE: (Reading) Do, on this first day of January, in the year of our Lord, 1863, and in accordance with my purpose so to do publicly proclaim for the full period of 100 days from the day first above mentioned, order and designate as the states and parts of states wherein the people thereof respectively are this day in rebellion against the United States the following, to wit...

DESTINEE ADAMS, BYLINE: (Reading) Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana - except the parishes of St. Bernard, Plaquemines, Jefferson, St. John, St. Charles, St. James Ascension, Assumption, Terrebonne, Lafourche, St. Mary, St. Martin, and Orleans, including the city of New Orleans...

NIA DUMAS, BYLINE: (Reading) Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina and Virginia - except the 48 counties designated as West Virginia and also the counties of Berkeley, Accomack, Northampton, Elizabeth City, York, Princess Anne and Norfolk, including the cities of Norfolk and Portsmouth - in which excepted parts are, for the present, left precisely as if this proclamation were not issued.

KORVA COLEMAN, BYLINE: (Reading) And by virtue of the power and for the purpose aforesaid, I do order and declare that all persons held as slaves within said designated states and parts of states are and henceforward shall be free.

GENE DEMBY, BYLINE: (Reading) And that the executive government of the United States, including the military and naval authorities thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of said persons.

CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: (Reading) And I hereby enjoin upon the people so declared to be free to abstain from all violence, unless in necessary self-defense. And I recommend to them that, in all cases when allowed, they labor faithfully for reasonable wages.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: (Reading) And I further declare and make known that such persons of suitable condition will be received into the Armed Service of the United States to garrison forts, positions, stations and other places, and to man vessels of all sorts in said service.

AYESHA RASCOE, BYLINE: (Reading) Upon this act, sincerely believed to be an act of justice warranted by the Constitution upon military necessity, I invoke the considerate judgment of mankind and the gracious favor of Almighty God.

WALTER RAY WATSON, BYLINE: (Reading) In witness, whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the seal of the United States to be affixed, done at the city of Washington this first day of January in the year of our Lord 1863 and of the independence of the United States of America the 87th. By the president, Abraham Lincoln.

FADEL: A reading of the Emancipation Proclamation for Juneteenth, also known as Emancipation Day or Black Independence Day.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN WILLIAMS' "FATHER AND SON") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Leila Fadel
Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
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