Juneteenth and the Call to Remember
By Willis Foster Sr. and Edna Johnston
Juneteenth commemorates June 19, 1865, when U.S. General Gordon Granger read General Orders No. 3 to the people of Galveston, Texas. He announced: “The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free.” With this announcement, all enslaved people in the United States knew they were free.
By the first half of the 20th century, most celebrations outside Texas disappeared, and U.S. history books classified American slavery as something to be acknowledged but not examined. This changed in the latter part of the 20th and the early 21st centuries, as Black people made other Americans grapple with the reality that African-American history and culture is a central part of U.S. history. In 2021, June 19th was formally recognized as a national holiday.
Father Joseph Green, Jr., the canon evangelist of the Episcopal Diocese of Southern Virginia, has said on many occasions that Black Americans are “an Exodus folk.” He goes on to explain: “We identify with the enslaved children of Israel whose cries were heard by God and were freed by God’s mighty hand. Juneteenth speaks to God hearing the cries of enslaved people in America and setting into motion all that went into the freedom of enslaved people in the United States.”
Juneteenth reminds us that we must try to understand and talk about American slavery and its legacies. This includes talking and teaching about slavery in our history books, churches, and political discourse. It means remembering the histories of those who were enslaved here in North America and those who have continued to experience and confront racial injustice.
St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Petersburg, a church that was started in 1867 by formerly enslaved Virginians, has taken this mission to heart by digitizing its records, including its first church register of baptisms, confirmations, weddings, and funerals, and records of the generations of Episcopalians that have followed. Their records are now part of a growing, searchable, digital archive where one can “see” our ancestors living their church lives. The digital archive is part of the work of the Episcopal Project, whose mission is to collect, digitize, maintain, and share the records and stories of congregations and other Episcopal entities.
Honoring Juneteenth reminds us that we must preserve and learn from the stories of those who lived through slavery and its aftermath here in North America. This remembrance’s purpose is for all God’s children living today, and, in the future, to know the stories of those who came before them.
Document: “Record of Marriages Celebrated in Saint Stephen’s Episcopal Church, Petersburg, Virginia, 1868-1869, Courtesy of History Matters’ Episcopal Project.”
The Reverend Canon Willis Foster Sr. is the canon for diversity in the Diocese of Southern Virginia. Edna Johnston is a member of the Church of the Holy Comforter in Richmond, Virginia, and the principal of History Matters, LLC.