Mary Frances Berry and Kermit Roosevelt on Juneteenth’s history

A new documentary produced by the Annenberg Public Policy Center explores the history of the holiday and illustrates how and why freedom and citizenship were intertwined. The film features Berry and Roosevelt, among others.

juneteenth logo
Annenberg Classroom, part of the Annenberg Public Policy Center, has released a documentary “Juneteenth: Exploring Freedom’s Stories” that surveys the history of the holiday.

Juneteenth marks the day in 1865 that enslaved people in Texas finally learned that they were free, more than two years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.

Texan Opal Lee fought for decades to get Juneteenth recognized nationally, and her efforts were rewarded in 2021 when President Joe Biden signed a bill making June 19 a federal holiday.

Annenberg Classroom, part of the Annenberg Public Policy Center (APPC), has released a documentary “Juneteenth: Exploring Freedom’s Stories” that surveys the history of the holiday and illustrates how and why freedom and citizenship were intertwined. The film features Lee, Mary Frances Berry, a professor of history and Africana studies in the School of Arts & Sciences, Kermit Roosevelt, a professor at Penn Carey Law, and others discussing the recently-designated holiday, and how it is connected to freedom. They have hosted several events where the public can view the film and participate in a discussion.

“Annenberg Classroom’s mission is to provide free, nonpartisan, high-quality civic education resources to educators, students, and the general public. We created ‘Juneteenth’ with that goal in mind,” says Andrea “Ang” Reidell, director of outreach and curriculum at APPC’s Leonore Annenberg Institute for Civics. “Educators throughout the country have expressed to me how excited they are to use the film and the accompanying teacher-developed lesson plans in their classrooms.”

Penn Today reached out to Berry and Roosevelt to discuss the holiday’s history, why it matters to all Americans, and how it was one landmark on the road to true liberty for all.

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 were the good guys and the Confederates were the bad guys. Interestingly, the revolution was strongly supported by about a third of the population, almost a third was against it, and a third 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.

mary frances berry
In the film, Mary Frances Berry, the Geraldine R. Segal Professor of American Social Thought and professor of history emerita, discusses the history of Juneteenth.

Berry: There’s a bit of ambivalence among some people about Juneteenth being a federal holiday. We know that the holiday was announced in 2021 in part because the Congress could not pass the George Floyd Act after Floyd was murdered by police in May of 2020. Government often does that: If they can’t accomplish what they originally intended, they try to do something to show the people who are concerned that they’re still interested in them. The Juneteenth holiday doesn’t change anything in the present, but it was a change for the people in Texas at the time.

On the one hand, it is important to recognize that people who were still enslaved after the Emancipation Proclamation didn’t know that they were supposed to be free, and this is something that should be corrected in our history. But there also was a lot of bloodshed over the announcement. There’s a river between Louisiana and Texas called the Brazos River. When the order was announced, many went to their masters and said ‘well, we’re free now,’ and they were happy and celebrating and the masters said ‘forget about it. I don’t know what you people are talking about.’ Some of the enslaved in Galveston ran away to try to get free and they tried to cross the Brazos River into Louisiana. An observer who wrote about it said that Brazos River ran with blood of those who were shot by the slaveowners as they tried to go across it. That wasn’t anything to celebrate.

How does marking Juneteenth express our values as Americans? Why is it important for all Americans to mark this holiday?

Roosevelt: I think that Juneteenth expresses our deepest values better than July 4, because our deepest values are not supposed to be about national self-determination, the right of the people to declare itself as separate people and govern itself as it chooses. That’s what’s in the Declaration of Independence, but that’s also the Confederacy in the Civil War. We say that we’re devoted to individual liberty and individual equality and equal rights under law and the grossest violation of that is slavery. But the relationship between slavery in the Revolution and slavery in the Declaration is pretty ambiguous. If you want a holiday that says people are entitled to freedom, people have natural rights that the government will protect, if you want a holiday that celebrates all of that, that’s Juneteenth.

kermit roosevelt
Kermit Roosevelt, the David Berger Professor for the Administration of Justice at Penn Carey Law, explains how and why freedom and citizenship were intertwined.

Berry: It’s important for all Americans, first of all, to know the actual history of the United States, as opposed to something made up to help somebody feel better, which we are seeing today. It’s important for people to know that, despite the Emancipation Proclamation, there were people who didn’t know about it, who were enslaved for two-and-a-half years more. It is also important for all Americans to lament and to remember the people who, when they found out about the Emancipation Proclamation, tried to act on it and were killed and left their blood there in the Brazos River. It’s the promise of freedom which is important, it’s the seeking of freedom which is important. Juneteenth is a symbol of all that.

What is the most important thing for people to understand about Juneteenth?

Roosevelt: American ideals find their best expression and originated not in the struggle of the colonists against the British crown, but in the struggle of abolitionists against slavery. Our nation really was born in a fight against slavery, but it’s not happening in 1776. It’s happening later.

Berry: As many opportunities as we can get to push back against the idea that it’s not important to know about our history as it was, then it’s important to try to do that. Sometimes history is shameful, and people don’t want to talk about it. But other times, you can look back and see there was an effort to try to remedy something, and that’s the promise of America. We have made great progress in trying to fulfill the promises of the great documents of our national life, like the Declaration of Independence, the preamble to the Constitution and all those amendments. We haven’t gotten there yet, but Juneteenth is another landmark on the road.

Mary Frances Berry is the Geraldine R. Segal Professor Emerita of American Social Thought and professor of history and Africana studies in the School of Arts & Sciences.

Kermit Roosevelt is the David Berger Professor for the Administration of Justice at Penn Carey Law School.