This story was supported by the Economic Hardship Reporting Project a journalism nonprofit.
Dating back millennia, the Jubilee was a momentous celebration, a year when land was to be returned, debts forgiven, and enslaved people were to be set free. Announced by the loud blast of a ram’s horn, biblical scholars note, the Jubilee year was grounded in the idea of freedom, orchestrating an economic, cultural, and moral reordering of society. It’s fitting, then, that Juneteenth is often referred to as Jubilee Day.
In January 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation abolished chattel slavery, declaring “all persons held as slaves” to be “forever free.” But it wasn’t until two years later, on June 19, 1865, that news of liberation finally reached enslaved people in Galveston, Texas. Juneteenth, sometimes called Black Independence Day or Freedom Day, honors this actual ending of slavery.
In a way, the Emancipation Proclamation functioned as Black Americans’ first and only Jubilee — in fact, “Jubilee” is what formerly enslaved people called the phase that followed the Civil War. Abolition put an end to an entire economy of exploited labor that essentially built the modern capitalist world. But the Emancipation Proclamation went further than requiring Confederate states to simply recognize slavery’s abolition — it also instructed the United States government to “maintain” the freedom of formerly enslaved people, and to do “no act or acts to repress such persons” or any “efforts they may make for their actual freedom.” Today, in a stark deviation from President Abraham Lincoln’s instructions, the government is still sanctioning and facilitating the oppression of Black people.
Sharecropping, convict leasing, medical racism, mass incarceration, policing, and other racist institutions trapped Black Americans in cycles of debt peonage, indentured servitude, and suffering. Forced to debt-finance public goods and their own incarceration, Black folks bear the brunt of student, medical, and criminal legal debt. For-profit colleges, hospitals, police departments, and the prison industrial complex all bank (literally) on their schemes to indebt Black communities. Just a decade ago, in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, racist housing practices and job loss wiped out over half of Black wealth.
As a result, today’s Black-white homeownership gap is wider than it was over 50 years ago. From the three-fifths compromise to prison and racial gerrymandering, politicians have repeatedly dismantled Black political power, making voting rights weaker for Black Americans than they were in 1965, when the Voting Rights Act was first passed. The scourge of gun violence and the school-to-prison pipeline have stolen the futures of Black children. Black girls are disappearing at an unconscionable rate and Black trans women have a life expectancy around the age required to be president: 35. If you’re Black, your odds of incarceration increase nearly fivefold. If you’re a Black woman in New York City, your likelihood of dying in childbirth increases eightfold. Sadly, Black Americans make up 13% of the U.S. population and 40% of people on death row.