Juneteenth was made a federal holiday in 2021, and since then, American companies have quickly moved to make a profit by selling new goods and services targeted to Black consumers. While those businesses look to make money, the newly recognized federal holiday ought to serve as an opportunity for all Americans to acknowledge — and pursue redress for — the centuries of economic exploitation of Black people and the continuing impact of economic inequality. Reparations are a way to break this cycle.
The newly recognized federal holiday ought to serve as an opportunity for all Americans to pursue redress for the centuries of economic exploitation of Black people.
On June 19, 1865, Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger, commanding the federal occupation of Texas, issued General Orders Number 3 from Galveston. His announcement finally enforced the Emancipation Proclamation, which had been issued by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863. As historian Calvin Schermerhorn, author of Unrequited Toil: A History of United States Slavery, points out, Juneteenth “was supposed to start a new era of black wealth creation.” Yet, the racial wealth gap has persisted well into the 21st century. Progress has been remarkably slow.
According to Schermerhorn, Black Americans “owned one-half of one percent of the national wealth” in 1863. Decades-long discriminatory and exclusionary practices in the United States have limited Black access to wealth. African Americans now own just more than 1.5 percent of the national wealth. Juneteenth, then, is the opportune moment to acknowledge these stark racial disparities in wealth.
The aftermath of emancipation in Texas demonstrates how exploitative practices continued. After Granger’s order, Galveston’s mayor still detained newly freed Black people, and some slaveholders even fought to keep Black people working on their plantations. The efforts to delay were largely motivated by white Southerners’ desire to continue the practice of exploiting Black people for their labor.
The production of cotton in the antebellum South had created more millionaires per capita in the lower Mississippi Valley than any other region of the country during that period. Materials produced by enslaved people in the South enriched northern cities, which also had invested in the transatlantic slave trade and greatly benefitted from slavery in other ways, too. For example, to help protect the wealth of enslavers, 19th-century insurance companies in New York City, sold life insurance policies on enslaved people.
Yale historian David Blight estimates that by 1860 in the U.S., the enslaved population — 4 million Black people by the start of the Civil War — was valued at around $3.5 billion. According to Blight, enslaved people represented “the largest single financial asset in the entire U.S. economy, worth more than all manufacturing and railroads combined.” The end of legal slavery, therefore, dealt a severe financial blow to the Confederacy, but the blow wasn’t nearly as devastating as the penury that had been forced upon generations of the enslaved. Black Americans’ small share of the national wealth is a lingering effect of that enslavement.
Emancipation and the fight for reparations go hand in hand, as Black activists have said for centuries. In 1783, when Belinda Sutton, a formerly enslaved Black woman, petitioned the Massachusetts General Court for a pension from the estate of her deceased former owner, she explicitly referred to her years of labor. Callie House, during the late 1890s, helped to establish the National Ex-Slave Mutual Relief, Bounty and Pension Association to push the federal government to provide pensions to the formerly enslaved. These women are among a long line of activists who have advocated the need for restitution for the harms wrought by slavery.
Rather than find ways to exploit the holiday for a profit, corporations should be exploring ways to extend reparations. Those ways include, but are not limited to, increasing investments in Black communities and Black-owned businesses. As Cheryl Grills of the California Reparations Task Force recently argued on a panel ahead of Juneteenth, reparations “begins with acknowledging not just the national harms, but how local entities colluded with the national harm, abated it or exacerbated it.”