JUNETEENTH — Year C
*Alternate* Second Reading by Jayne Marie Smith
“How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news,” the Apostle Paul quotes the prophet Isaiah after asking, “How can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can anyone preach unless they are sent?”
The spiritual side of me thinks of the Apostle Paul’s description in Romans 7:19 of the ongoing battle inside of him between good and sin. Bodily, as an African American, I feel this battle waging outside of me, too; in the United States, this battle waged all around me, ever ongoing, invisible, but impactful. Both spiritually and in my Black American existence, I recognize that no one in rebellion adheres to authority without the presence of that authority.
For white and Black Texans in 1865, this authority was represented by as many as 10,000 Black men in Union uniforms, bearing guns and proud faces from their numerous major victories. Juneteenth observations rightfully focus on Union Gen. Gordon Granger reading Order No. 3, finally announcing the news of emancipation, as he was flanked by two transports full of soldiers marching to the Negro Church on Broadway (now known as Reedy Chapel AME Church). But it’s the divine order of events that added to the beauty of this day.
In May 1865, following the Union’s victory in Virginia, the entire XXV Corps — composed of free and formerly enslaved Black men — was shipped to Texas to secure the Mexican border. While en route, stormy seas — some might call “acts of God” — forced the transport ships to anchor in Galveston Bay on June 18, 1865, to gather supplies. The next day, Friday, June 19, when Granger arrived, the more than 1,000 enslaved people working in Galveston’s ports, houses, hotels, cotton fields, and barber and smithing shops would have witnessed thousands of Black men in blue uniforms as far as the eye could see as their liberators.
Granger read the words:
“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 …”
It was the beautiful presence of authoritative Black bodies that made these words real. These Black soldiers, like Christ, gave flesh to the emancipating spoken words. They embodied the chorus of the Negro spiritual “Oh Freedom,” which rang: “And before I’d be a slave, I’ll be buried in my grave, and go home to my Lord, and be free.” Before them marched the cost of their freedom, the death of the sin that bound them, and the new life being offered to them. Their freedom didn’t just come from an order of a white man; freedom came enforced by faces that looked like them, a living picture of freedom that spoke 10,000 words.
As we acknowledge the day Black Texans heard they were free, we cannot neglect thanking the beautiful Black feet that were sent and stood with the good news.