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What is Juneteenth? Pastor George Hopkins Explains

June calendar sitting on a black background
June 15, 2022

Saturday is June 19th, a day known as Juneteenth. This is a day of celebration and reflection, but many don’t know the true meaning and significance behind this date. Tracey Tiernan talked with George Hopkins, Pastor of Sowebo Community Church (formerly Gallery Church) in Southwest Baltimore, about the deep sentiments and history that make up Juneteenth.

Listen to their full discussion below and read some of Pastor Hopkins’ insight below:

What is the significance of June 19th, 1865 known as Juneteenth? And what it means for you personally as an African American man?

  • Juneteenth is the celebration of people who were enslaved hearing the news that they were no longer enslaved on June 19th, 1865 It’s a celebration of that moment. Personally, it’s a mixture of celebration and complexity to me now: celebrating that day for former people being a slave hearing their freedom and being jubilant and realizing they could walk off their plantation and go wherever they wanted to. And a lot of people went looking for families that were divided.

    But the complexity of it that I think we can still learn from today is that the war had ended two months prior to that announcement in Texas, and so this was the last group of people that heard about their actual freedom. The freedom was already decreed, already earned and fought for, already established. The news of it was kept away from them, and so for me, Juneteenth has a mixture feeling of celebrating the jubilee of freedom and also realizing the delay news of freedom that had already been fought for, already been declared. That was in May that the war had ended, and it didn’t reach certain areas until Union Soldiers went to plantations and declared it. Otherwise, those who were enslaved had never heard that the war had ended, that the Emancipation Proclamation a few years ago had been declared. And so, yes it’s a mixture of freedom, but also of realizing in our world, which I think we’re still wrestling with today, that there are things that are true, declared, paid for, and fought for that are delayed in being communicated.

Why the delay? 

  • Yeah, I’ll give some thoughts on what I’ve read about and they’re not complete. I tell some people that the issue of race in our world is complex because we’re complex human beings. So, some of the difficulty is you had people in the south who believe that it wasn’t over yet. Maybe there could be a chance that there could be some turnaround in the fight. You had some people who thought “I want to get another harvest in before this is communicated” Then some people figured, “as long as I don’t tell people, they will continue to operate as an enslaved person as long as they are ignorant of the fact that they’re actually free.” I think it’s a combination of all those things. It wasn’t just in Texas; that happened in many different areas, especially in the south. The Union Army would go from stop to stop to declare these things, and Texas just happened to be one of the last locations that they went to.

    And again, a lot of us are still learning our history about this country. I think part of what happened in June 1865, we are still kind of wrestling with today: Why don’t we know what we should know? Why don’t we know the freedom that we all have? Why aren’t we aware of things that have happened that have shaped where we are today? I think some of the complexity of those things is that for those who were enslaved to hear this good news, that would be a loss for those who had enslaved them. So, there had to be someone to come with authority and say “I’m standing here in your plantation” – literally a general went to a plantation and nobody could kick this general off the plantation because of the authority that they had that they declared this to be true.

What is an appropriate way to mark this date?

  • I think there’s a little bit of both: there’s celebration, there’s getting together, there’s remembering a lot of the values and accomplishments in the African-American Community. For me, it’s a lot of reflection because again, in that moment, I see the complexity of what we’re still struggling with, which is that the thing that we believe to be true, not just in a democratic country, but also as people who follow Christ.

    We know God’s heart and God’s kingdom things that have been declared to be true and we are still waiting for those things to be seen here on Earth. We pray very often that “thy kingdom come thy will be done on Earth as it is in heaven.” So, it’s a time for me to reflect on the complexity of things and even for me to reflect on those places in my own life where there are things that I might not believe for myself as a black man and as a follower of Christ.

    I need to say in this moment: “How do I walk out on these things that are already true, even if I’m around the world and community or whatever it might be that doesn’t fully understand it. It’s a good reflection on the complexity many of us are feeling as we are looking to figure out the race strife. For me, this just embodies the complexities of it all.

Can you recommend any resources for people who are on this journey of learning and discovery and who really want to understand more of our history and where we are right now? 

  • Videos on Netflix and Amazon
  • “Denmark Vesey’s Garden: Slavery and Memory in the Cradle of Confederacy” by Blain Roberts and Ethan J. Kylie.
  • “The Half Has Never Been Told” by Edward E. Baptist
  • “Stamped from the Beginning” by Ibram X. Kendi

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