One of the most formative courses I encountered was in my first semester of college at Davis and Elkins.
D and E is a small Presbyterian school in the mountains of West Virginia. All freshmen were required to have at least one integrated studies class and I was placed in “Human Freedom and Its Counterforces.” Dr. William Gartman gave us to “Soledad Brother” as an introduction to the suffering of the incarcerated. He shared “Night” with us as an introduction to Anti-Semitism and the Holocaust. We read the Boston Women’s Collective “Our Bodies, Our Selves” to learn about gender inequity and stereotyping. And we read “The Gulag Archipelago” to learn about political repression.
What this great professor kept emphasizing was how very long is the struggle to be free. For example, while we perhaps take for granted women’s right to vote, the suffrage movement in the US took many decades and faced much resistance. Significantly and sadly, the Council of Bishops of the Methodist Church opposed it and issued a letter saying that women should not vote – and if they wanted an opinion on a political matter, they should get it from their father, husband, brother, or son.
Dr. Gartman also taught that freedom for anyone was freedom for us all and that while there were historic events we ought to know about, he emphasized that our great work was in front, not behind, us. He challenged us to Face Forward; to master the content of the assigned readings and prepare ourselves for a lifetime of work helping others to become free.
And yet, one of the things we did not learn in the class was the history of Juneteenth.
I think most of us blithely assumed that when the surrender at Appomattox Courthouse was signed, freedom for the slaves was an accepted fact. It was rather late in life when I learned of the cruelty of the defeated Confederates who covered up as long as they could the fact that their slaves were no longer legally in bondage.
Which brings us to Juneteenth.
As we celebrate, I hope we do so with a two-fold sense of purpose. First, I challenge us all to learn more of its history and how Juneteenth progressed on a long, slow march from a determined group of Galveston leaders to the national stage. Second, I hope Juneteenth challenges us all to think critically and deeply about the here and now – and the yet to come.
Counterforces to our human freedoms are many and varied. It is our hope and prayer that this holiday becomes more than a three-day weekend filled with hiking, picnics, and the beach. We pray that it becomes a time for us to renew our commitment to seek freedom for the oppressed. May God bless us all.
Bruce E. Stanley