On June 19th, 1865, in Galveston, Texas, Union Army General Gordon Granger announced the total emancipation of enslaved people in Texas with this statement:
“The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.”
It is not often that the latter half of that proclamation is shared, but in the context of the history of June 19th, celebrated as Juneteenth, it’s important, if also uncomfortable to read. The United States may have freed those enslaved to build our nation, but many white Americans were still greatly invested in protecting their power and capital. Reparations were not offered to the formerly enslaved, only the promise of wages if they stayed in their current conditions. But in spite of this, with nowhere to go and little resources, many Black Americans decided to leave anyway to seek out freedom and lost family.
The first Juneteenth was 155 years ago. As videos of police brutality and stories of systemic racism fill the news, many white Americans are realizing how little has changed and beginning to face their own investment in unjust systems. 1 John 1:8 states, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” Bellingham has been slow to change as well, and has a history embedded with racism. Redlining designated parts of our city to white residents only, except in the case of servants. Black Bellingham residents were routinely driven to the edge of town by the police and told to leave—a practice that went on until the 1970’s. These racist tactics were not exclusive to Black Americans–Chinese, South Asian, Japanese, and Native American residents were also driven out of Bellingham through coercion, violence, threats and boycotts. White supremacy was openly celebrated in our community, and the roots of it still linger today.
It was only in November of 2019 that the City Council decided to remove the plaque commemorating General Pickett from a bridge in downtown Bellingham. Not only was Pickett a Confederate General, but instrumental in the colonization of Bellingham itself, at the expense of our indigenous neighbors. Remembering history is important, but how we remember that history is even more important.
Acknowledging this history is an important part of what we do at Habitat for Humanity. A home is one of the most important assets a family can ever have, and the reality is that in our community home-ownership is a privilege that only a few are afforded. It is our hope that as we continue our work of building affordable housing, we can begin to repair the damage that has kept so many marginalized Whatcom County residents from something as basic and life-changing as home-ownership. But the problem of systemic racism and bigotry will take more than us, more than any one of us to address. On this Juneteenth, in 2020, we invite all of our Habitat family to learn and reflect on the history of Bellingham, our country, and Juneteenth itself. Now more than ever, it is clear that we need everyone in our community on board to make lasting change.