Opinion: Juneteenth has a particularly poignant history in Utah. It’s our responsibility to tell the story.

By telling our story and discovering our past, we preserve our future.

The Juneteenth holiday celebrates a crucial moment in the American struggle for freedom and justice. Celebrations of emancipation, like Juneteenth, are not just historical markers. They are living traditions that honor the long struggles, sacrifices, losses and triumphs of those who fought for freedom. They commemorate the ongoing journey to full freedom.

Discussion of history can be a complicated matter between communities and cultures. Many people would prefer to avoid it altogether. The Sema Hadithi African American Heritage and Culture Foundation tries to cultivate understanding and truth that gives room for growth and unity among diverse communities.

By uncovering and sharing the stories of Black Americans and the Native Nations who were also freed at the end of the Civil War, we protect the legacy of their struggles and contributions as we remember and honor them.

Emancipation Day and Juneteenth

The way we celebrate freedom in the United States has changed over time. Emancipation Day, first celebrated on April 16, 1862, recognized 3,000 freed enslaved people in Washington, D.C. It is a milestone advocated by President Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass.

Watch Night, or Freedom’s Eve, on December 31, 1862, was a night of anticipation and prayer as African Americans awaited the enforcement of the Emancipation Proclamation. This tradition exemplifies the collective hope of a people yearning for freedom. As news of the proclamation spread from Virginia to Mississippi, celebrations erupted, marking the realization of Lincoln’s new birth of freedom.

As emancipation spread across the country, each state celebrated its unique journey in its own unique way. The patchwork of freedom reached Florida on May 20, 1865. In Galveston, Texas, it was June 19 when the Union General, Gordon Granger, delivered the order two-and-a-half years after the Emancipation Proclamation, recognized in Black communities as Juneteenth.

Delayed freedom would become the course of the struggles and injustices the enslaved and free faced following the Civil War. Juneteenth has since become a symbol of African American persistent hope, a recognition of unrealized freedom and a celebration of familial and cultural legacy.

The fight for freedom continued long after December 1865 in the form of civil rights and true equality. The efforts of the Freedom Riders in the 1960s and the broader civil rights movement are emblematic of the ongoing fight against systemic racism, which presents itself as justice and equality for all Americans.

Emancipation and Juneteenth in Utah

Emancipation and Juneteenth are particularly poignant in the history of enslavement in Utah. While the state often associates freedom with the Mormon pioneers, it has a lesser spoken-about history of enslavement of members of Native Nations and African Americans.

Early Mormon settlers brought enslaved African Americans with them from places like Mississippi and Louisiana while also enslaving the people of the territory who had occupied the land for tens of thousands of years. Commemorating Juneteenth in Utah is a critical step toward acknowledging this history and fashioning a crucial understanding of the state’s past.

Juneteenth in Utah, as it is all over the nation, is a prescient reminder of the ongoing struggle for freedom, historic recognition, justice and a fair accounting of all its communities’ narratives. Juneteenth should reflect the battle for growth, progress, genuine equality and unity.

Emancipation celebrations underscore the importance of historical memory and cooperation in shaping a society where all its members belong. Emancipation honors our collective resilience, contributions, and desire for individual rights and dignity.

In Utah, historical societies of different communities are crucial in discovering, preserving and sharing Utah’s history. Telling the stories of these communities fosters understanding and unity through historical truth. It is why the Sema Hadithi Foundation is working tirelessly with other community members and organizations to establish a free-standing Black History Museum that will permanently house the stories of Black Americans in Utah and the Mountain West.

The celebration of Emancipation Day and Juneteenth is a testament to the veracity of the human spirit, our hopes and our tireless pursuit of freedom. These commemorations remind us to always seek communion with our ancestors, who sacrificed and secured victories, as they call on us to continue to strive for a flourishing and loving society. We not only seek to fulfill their dreams for us, but we must also look forward to our progeny in the hope of creating a better place for their future free of hatred and oppression.

(Photo courtesy of Robert S. Burch, Jr.) Robert S. Burch, Jr.

Robert S. Burch, Jr. is the executive director of Sema Hadithi African American Heritage and Culture Foundation. He also serves as vice president of the Sons and Daughters of the United States Middle Passage and is a member of the Utah Board of State History. He and his wife, Alice, have spent the past 11 years helping families research their genealogy and teaching the importance of sharing family history to tell the story of Utah and America. They reside in West Valley City.

The Salt Lake Tribune is committed to creating a space where Utahns can share ideas, perspectives and solutions that move our state forward. We rely on your insight to do this. Find out how to share your opinion here, and email us at voices@sltrib.com.