A few days ago, Congress established June 19 as a federal holiday – Juneteenth – to commemorate the date, June 19, 1865, when slaves in Texas were officially notified that they were now free, two years after President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. The 13th Amendment to the Constitution, making slavery unconstitutional and ending slavery in two border states, Delaware and Kentucky, was ratified on December 6, 1865. The immediate result of the new federal holiday was that some federal employees, because June 19 fell on a Saturday this year, had the day off on Friday, June 18. But what will the long term effect be? What impact will the new holiday have on the descendants of former slaves? Will we do any better now than we did a century and a half ago? In general, slaves were not allowed to learn to read and write; they owned no property or anything else. The progress of Reconstruction period was ended with the Compromise of 1877, when Hayes became president following the contested election of 1876. The history of the subsequent Jim Crow era is not a happy one. How are we doing today, 67 years after the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education?
In 1953, when I was 10 and my brother 13, we moved from one Detroit suburb to another, to a higher status suburb, to a house that would enable my brother and me each to have our own bedroom, to a house with more than one bathroom. One day following the move I happened to be reading the deed for the house (why I was doing that I have no idea) and discovered a restrictive covenant, prohibiting the sale of the house to Blacks and probably to some other categories of people. I was upset by this and asked my father about it. He assured me that the covenant no longer had any legal effect (the Supreme Court had struck down racially restrictive covenants in 1948, Shelley v. Kraemer). But discrimination in housing persisted: It was banned by the Fair Housing Act in 1968. But how much progress have we made in housing integration since I was 10?
Prior to the Civil War, many Unitarians and Universalists were abolitionists, mostly prominently Theodore Parker. But there were others whose livelihoods depended on slavery. And John C. Calhoun of South Carolina was a Unitarian and a preeminent defender of slavery.
Woodrow Wilson was not a Unitarian or a Universalist, but before he was president of the United States he was president of Princeton University. Princeton’s school of public affairs was named after him as was the university’s alternative to the selective dining club system, the Woodrow Wilson Society, where I took my meals. I was unaware at the time how racist he was as president (or maybe I was aware but considered it irrelevant ancient history). Now Wilson’s name has been stricken from the public affairs school and he is no longer celebrated at Princeton.
So here’s my suggestion: to educate and reinforce our UU anti-racism, to inspire us to go from words to deeds, let’s charter a bus some time in the months ahead and spend several hours at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, in Washington DC.