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Emancipation Day parade on Main Street, Richmond, Virginia.
Emancipation Day, Richmond, Virginia, circa 1905 (Photo source: Library of Congress)

I didn’t learn about Juneteenth until after I came to prison. Being incarcerated made me want to learn more about the history of slavery in this country. Most of what I’ve learned is sad, but it’s helping me understand the present better. 

Juneteenth celebrates the emancipation of African American slaves in the U.S. While President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation declaring all slaves free on Jan. 1, 1863, midway through the Civil War “it could not be implemented in places still under Confederate control,” especially the westernmost Confederate states, until years later, according to the National Museum of African-American History & Culture

On June 19, 1865, Union troops made it to that westernmost territory in Galveston Bay, Texas, and freed more than 250,000 Black people in the state. That’s why we celebrate Juneteenth today.

While many Black folks have celebrated the holiday for dozens of decades, Juneteenth has seen increased recognition nationwide since the 2020 murder of George Floyd and the resulting protests. In 2021, President Joe Biden declared Juneteenth a federal holiday.

Juneteenth’s notability in my Missouri prison is a mixed bag. In early June, I went through my housing unit and asked several inmates what Juneteenth meant to them.

People between 19 and 27 years old hadn’t really studied the importance of this day, and it took some of them a while to reflect on what it truly meant.

Those 35 and older, who have been in prison long enough to study Juneteenth, believe nothing has really changed. While we don’t have the same form of slavery today, 38% of the nation’s incarcerated population is Black, despite the fact that Black people make up just 12% of the general population. On top of that, several states still don’t pay for work inside prisons or pay cents on the dollar — which is indentured servitude, or slavery by another name, as some call it.

It’s my belief that enslaved Black people gave blood, sweat and tears to ensure we have a future they could only dream of having. Juneteenth allows me to reflect on the resilience of my ancestors who first lived in this country and on everyone who died trying to survive.

Now I’m in a position as a prison journalist to use my voice to get the truth out, whether it’s about the conditions of incarceration or educating folks about Juneteenth.

We have to be honest about the past to fix our broken country. Racism was a learned and taught behavior that was perpetuated over centuries. White people need to rectify the wrongs of slavery with honesty and understanding. Then the healing process can truly begin.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Antwann Lamont Johnson is a writer incarcerated in Missouri.