“. . .on June 19th, 1865. . . the Union soldiers, led by Major General Gordon Granger, landed at Galveston, Texas with news that the war had ended and that the enslaved were now free. Note that this was two and a half years after President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation - which had become official January 1, 1863.”
Growing up, I remember learning about two documents authored by Abraham Lincoln: the Gettysburg Address and the Emancipation Proclamation. American history, especially for grade school students, is taught in broad strokes. Emancipation provided the moral victory of the Civil War, while the Gettysburg Address spoke to the sacrifices made by those who fought in it. Slavery ended and justice prevailed.
Of course, the reality of our history is much more complicated than can be presented in a chapter of a fifth-grade textbook. My introduction to Juneteenth came while I lived in Texas, which made June 19th a state holiday in 1980. Emancipation was not achieved with the stroke of a pen, but gradually as the war ended and the Union was restored. Slavery did not end everywhere at once. And, while we aspire as a nation to liberty and justice for all, the history of the United States also includes many examples of falling short of the ideal that all men are created equal.
Some of us look at our history as if it is chapters in a book, or episodes of a TV show. We want to turn the page, to put the past behind us. The Civil War ended 156 years ago. Why can’t we just “move on?” But we cannot compartmentalize our past so easily, and we still contend with the effects of “separate but equal”: redlining, Jim Crow laws, segregation and restrictive covenants. Our history is not simply a page to be turned. It is also richly woven tapestry and there are many threads that connect our past to our present.
Legal advances in civil rights are a recent part of the history of the United States. The landmark Supreme Court decision, Brown v. Board of Education, which ended legal segregation of public schools, was issued in 1954 – sixty-seven years ago. Virtually all of today’s retirees were born prior to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Twenty-fourth Amendment (eliminating poll taxes), the Voting Rights Act of 1965, The Civil Rights Act of 1968 (prohibiting housing discrimination) and the Equal Opportunity Act of 1972 (banning employment discrimination in local, state and federal government agencies). Access to education for people with disabilities was not guaranteed until the passage of the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975. A person retiring this year at age 65 was 19 years old when access to education was guaranteed.
Civil rights legislation, along with the establishment of regulations for clean air and drinking water, and the environmental cleanup in the 1970s, helped address longstanding inequities in employment, education and housing. But they did not magically change the world overnight. Older adults from the Greatest Generation and the Baby Boom—the generations that helped establish modern civil rights and environmental standards—experience dramatic differences in health outcomes, household income and life expectancy.
One of the miracles of the twentieth century was the increase in life expectancy. A person born in the United States in 1900 had an average life expectancy of 47 years. By the turn of the century, that number increased to over 70 years. There were a variety of contributing factors: vaccines, improvements in health care and hygiene, public health programs and infrastructure development that provided improved sanitation and water safety. Food and drug regulations, workplace safety standards and environmental cleanup efforts also contributed to people living a longer, healthier lives. But, not everyone benefitted equally. A study from the Ohio Alliance for Innovation in Population Health reported on the dramatic differences in average age of death, with “large discrepancies in census tracts adjacent to each other.” In Cuyahoga County, the difference is as much as 37 years. There are a variety of factors that contribute to this disparity, and in past blogs I have written about the impact of social determinants on health.
As Juneteenth nears, it is a reminder that we have unfinished business. It was years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation before the last slave was freed. Modern civil rights legislation was enacted in our lifetime. But that does not mean the work is over. In fact, it is just beginning. Progress has been made, but we have not reached the goal. By continuing to press for greater diversity, equity and inclusion, we can help more people achieve the American Dream and enjoy a longer, healthier lives.
Abraham Lincoln’s speeches and the Emancipation Proclamationhttp://www.abrahamlincolnonline.org/lincoln/speeches/gettysburg.htmhttps://www.archives.gov/exhibits/featured-documents/emancipation-proclamation/transcript.html
A timeline of the Civil Rights Movementhttps://www.loc.gov/exhibits/civil-rights-act/legal-events-timeline.htmlhttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Race_and_health_in_the_United_States
Ohio University, Average Age of Death in Ohiohttps://878570bd-c4fe-4dfe-8107-669a96dd214b.filesusr.com/ugd/89e8f1_4913e856b8b24598923c03716452cc30.pdf