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The History of Juneteenth

June 19, 2023

Kermit Roosevelt
Kermit Roosevelt

Prof. Kermit Roosevelt discusses the history and significance of Juneteenth in a new documentary and in an interview at Penn Today.

Annenberg Classroom, part of the Annenberg Public Policy Center (APPC), has released “Juneteenth,” a documentary that explores the history of the holiday and illustrates how and why freedom and citizenship were intertwined.

The film features Opal Lee, who fought for decades to get Juneteenth recognized nationally, culminating in 2021 when President Biden signed a bill making June 19 a federal holiday. Kermit Roosevelt, David Berger Professor for the Administration of Justice, and Mary Frances Berry, Penn’s Geraldine R. Segal Professor Emerita of American Social Thought and Professor of History and Africana Studies, also appear in the documentary discussing the recently designated holiday and how it is connected to freedom. 

Roosevelt works in a diverse range of fields, focusing on constitutional law and conflict of laws. He has published scholarly books in both fields. In his most recent book, The Nation That Never Was: Reconstructing America’s Story, Roosevelt argues that our country’s fundamental values, particularly equality, are not part of the Founders’ vision. Instead, they were stated in President Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and were the hope of Reconstruction, a time envisioning a nation committed to liberty and equality.

Roosevelt and Berry recently spoke with Penn Today, and the following is an excerpt:

Q: Why did it take so long for an official holiday to be created to mark Juneteenth?

Roosevelt: We have this very strange understanding of American history where we identify with the rebels in the Revolutionary War, and we say those people brought us freedom. Then we identify with the people who defeated the rebels in the Civil War and we say those people brought us freedom, but we don’t focus on that as much as we focus on the Revolution. Acknowledging that it’s the Civil War that really brought freedom on an individual level is something that we’ve been very reluctant to do.

The main problem is that a lot of the country identifies with the losing side in the Civil War and that makes it harder to say the Union was the good guys and the Confederates were the bad guys. Interestingly, the revolution was strongly supported by about ⅓ of the population, almost ⅓ was against it, and ⅓ was in the middle. But after the Revolution, we drove the Loyalists out of the country, we took their property and redistributed it and wrote the Loyalists out of our national culture so that everyone who remained in America was on the side of the patriots in 1776. We didn’t do that with the Civil War. We took some steps towards taking the property of the Confederates and redistributing it, but then we went back on it and notoriously didn’t do it, which is part of the reason that reconstruction fails. We tried to reintegrate the Confederates into American life, and the cost of that was suppressing the ideals that we fought for. Juneteenth is a celebration of those ideals. Juneteenth is an interesting counterpart to July 4, because rather than marking national independence, it’s individual freedom. It’s also a more racialized holiday and the way that we think about race in the story of America plays into this a lot because for a long time, we have not wanted to acknowledge the salience of race… .

Read the full piece at Penn Today.