On this day 155 years ago, a detachment of the U.S. Army entered Galveston, Texas, and read Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation to the city’s enslaved residents. They learned that the Civil War was over and that they were free.

June 19th – “Juneteenth” or Emancipation Day – has been observed ever since in African American communities, where the descendants of slaves celebrate an end to their bondage and mark the still unfulfilled promise of full participation in the American story.

Juneteenth has not been a big holiday in Maine, which was not a slave state before the Civil War and has one of the smallest African-American populations in the country. But since the date comes up on the calendar this year on the heels of mass protests against systemic racism – a legacy of slavery – 2020 might be different

Among the events in Maine will include a concert recorded in an empty State Theatre in Portland, featuring local black artists. It will stream on the state’s Facebook Live page at 8 p.m. Friday.

At noon the University of Maine School of Law is hosting a virtual panel discussion titled “Racial Injustice: Reimagining Policing and Public Safety.” Interested participants can find registration information by clicking on the events tab of the Maine Law website.

And the youth-led Black Lives Matter Portland is planning a Juneteenth rally and march beginning at 3 p.m. Friday outside City Hall.

These events are ongoing evidence that racial disparities in law enforcement are not just a problem of a few bad apples in a few police departments, but something that’s wrong with the system itself. According to data collected by the Portland Police Department, black people were far more likely to be arrested, issued a citation and be subject to the use of force by an officer than their white neighbors. The numbers here echo national statistics, which show black people are arrested in numbers far out of proportion to their share of the population.

It’s not just an issue of criminal justice: Black Americans are twice as likely to be unemployed than white workers, even in a strong economy. Black workers with jobs earn on average 27 percent less than white workers. And the net worth of a typical white family ($171,000) was nearly ten times greater than that of a black family ($17,150) in 2016, according to a study by the Brookings Institute. The COVID-19 crisis also has exposed undeniable racial disparities in health, in that black Americans are three times more likely to die when they are infected with the coronavirus than their white counterparts.

The death of George Floyd in Minneapolis last month has demanded a national reckoning on the racial discrimination that’s built into so many of our institutions.

One of the ways the reckoning is taking place is the removal of monuments dedicated to Confederate soldiers and politicians. This is not a matter of erasing history: It’s choosing not to glorify men who fought a four-year war of rebellion in order to keep others in chains.

As the statues come down, it’s good for white Americans to honor the memory of Juneteenth. Just like the signing of the Declaration of Independence, ending slavery in America was a significant event in world history – not just American history. Many white Mainers can trace their ancestry back to the people who fought the war that ended slavery, and proof of those soldiers’ sacrifices can be seen in cemeteries in every corner of the state.

We can’t fully understand the present without understanding the past. A good hard look at how we got here may be what it takes for us to move forward as a nation.


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