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Originally published Sunday, June 17, 2012 at 8:06 PM

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We can all celebrate Juneteenth

Columnist Jerry Large says Freedom Day — better known as Juneteenth — is worthy of celebration by all Americans.

Seattle Times staff columnist

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... a march toward equality that's still in progress — unfinished... MORE
Slave labor was responsible for that wealth and for making the U.S. as a whole a player... MORE
While racism is saddly alive and well in America, the biggest problem in the black... MORE

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In a couple of weeks we'll happily celebrate Independence Day, but we haven't been as eager to embrace Freedom Day, June 19.

Freedom Day — more commonly known as Juneteenth, when it is known at all — is usually referred to as a black celebration of the end of slavery. But isn't that something worth celebrating by every American?

A commemoration that involves looking back at slavery is admittedly complicated. It happened here, with Americans as bad guys as well as good guys. And it is part of a march toward equality that's still in progress — unfinished, contentious work.

But that makes it even more valuable and necessary for us to look back together to remember how we came to be who we are, just like we do on the Fourth.

If you are happy with the outcome of the struggle for freedom, then identify with the good guys and leave guilt behind.

If you are a descendant of people who were enslaved, take pride in their struggle for freedom and the strength they showed in surviving the system's brutality. In fact, we all can do both.

Learning a little history is the best place to start. That is easier now than ever, with numerous books and lots of websites that offer quick facts and short essays.

Each year, Juneteenth prompts me to cruise around the Web, or pick up a new book. It's how I commemorate that part of our history.

Blackpast.org, run by University of Washington history professor Quintard Taylor, is a good place to start.

One of the places I visited this year is the University of Houston's Digital History site.

I was looking at Texas sites because Juneteenth got its start there. A brigade of Union soldiers landed in Galveston on June 19, 1865, and brought word that slavery was over. Or maybe more to the point, they brought the muscle to make emancipation stick. Celebration of that news became an annual event. And since we lack another anchor date for a commemoration, it spread around the country.

It makes sense to learn more about something that had such a defining impact on our country.

Did you know that the South, if considered a separate nation, would have been the fourth most prosperous in the world in 1860?

Slave labor was responsible for that wealth and for making the U.S. as a whole a player on the international stage.

It was a new technology, the cotton gin, that took slave labor to a whole new level and changed the nation's economy. Cotton became king and solidified slavery's hold on the nation.

The gin was invented in 1793. By 1850, 64 percent of enslaved Americans were living on cotton plantations, versus 12 percent on tobacco plantations, 5 percent sugar and 4 percent rice.

Nearly a third of those laborers were children.

By 1860 more than 9,500 miles of railroad tracks — a third of the nation's total — had been built by slave labor.

At the time of the Civil War only 1 or 2 percent of enslaved people could read and write. There were laws against teaching them, because of grave fears that an educated person would be more likely to rebel against enslavement. In some places teaching a slave to read was punishable by death.

Access to a good education has remained a struggle, affected by lingering internal and external attitudes formed in our early history.

Commemorations of the past are one of the ways we rededicate ourselves to the ongoing work of realizing our ideals.

May you have a thoughtful Freedom Day.

Jerry Large's column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or jlarge@seattletimes.com. Twitter@jerrylarge.

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About Jerry Large

I try to write about the intersections of everyday life and big issues. I like to invite readers to think a little differently. The topics I choose represent the things in which I take an interest, and I try to deal with them the way most folks would, sometimes seriously, sometimes with a sense of humor. My column runs Mondays and Thursdays.
jlarge@seattletimes.com | 206-464-3346

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