When Rasool Berry grew up hearing about Juneteenth, he heard the same false story most Americans do: That the holiday celebrated the date, June 19, 1865, when people in Galveston, Texas, finally received word of the Emancipation Proclamation that set enslaved people free.
The falsehood has elements of truth: June 19, 1865 does indeed mark the day that Gordon Granger, a general in the Union Army, led thousands of Union troops into Galveston, Texas. But as we hear in Juneteenth: Faith & Freedom, a new documentary that Berry executive produces and hosts, the troops weren’t just delivering good news. The film shows that Texas slavers were well aware that President Abraham Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation two-and-a-half years earlier, on Jan. 1, 1863. They just didn’t care. That changed, of course, when thousands of Union troops, both Black and white, arrived in their town.
“The soldiers didn’t come here to inform,” Galveston genealogist Sharon Batiste Gillins says in the film. “They came here to enforce.”
Gillins is one of many Texas historians, religious leaders and activists who tell Berry the true story of our newest national holiday in Juneteenth: Faith and Freedom, which you can watch for free on YouTube, or above. Some are descendants of the people set free that day. They delightedly dismantle myths that have been used as propaganda throughout American history to minimize the atrocities of slavery, and the subjugation that followed, long after 1865.
“History is fraught, because oftentimes people can kind of want to see in the past a reflection of the good and not the bad, right?” Berry says in an interview you can watch below. “We just thought going to the original sources — going to the those who were descendants of those who were emancipated — really would give us the most accurate, clear perspective of what that day meant to them.”
The film is now making the festival circuit — it recently played the Heartland International Film Festival and Dallas International Film Festival — and has also gained attention for a powerful soundtrack you can listen to here.
Juneteenth, long celebrated in Texas, became a national holiday in 2021 in large part thanks to Opal Lee, an activist who turned 96 earlier this month. She’s known as the “grandmother of Juneteenth” because at the age of 89, she walked from her home in Fort Worth, Texas to Washington, D.C., to call for the holiday to be observed nationwide. President Biden signed it into law after the murder of George Floyd sparked national calls for racial progress.
The film makes the point, again and again, that the fight for justice is often tentative — and that progress is often met with horrific setbacks. As the film notes, Lee’s first memory of Juneteenth is from age 12, when on June 19, 1939, 500 white rioters burned down her family’s home.
“To see what that meant to her, to see that work come to fruition was really powerful,” Berry says. “But then also, it was really powerful to realize that her first earliest Juneteenth memory was not a celebration.”
The film, directed by Ya’Ke Smith and produced by Our Daily Bread Media, part of Our Daily Bread Ministries, also looks at the ways that Christianity has been twisted throughout history to justify slavery and other evils. One expert in the film recounts how enslaved people were given a so-called “Slave’s Bible” edited to remove anything that might inspire them to demand freedom.
Berry didn’t grow up with a Christian background, but is now a teaching pastor with The Bridge Church in Brooklyn, New York. He is especially interested in how Black churches reformed Christianity to make it a force for justice.
“The story that they saw was that the sense of liberation, the sense of freedom, was very core and essential to idea of Christian expression,” he says. “And not just for Christians, but for all people — that was the idea behind what motivated and inspired their faith. And so we thought it was just important to tell that story. We think that especially nowadays, you still see the same thing — people using or misusing faith or religious language to be a source of oppression for marginalized people.
“And we want to show: That’s not what these people saw in the text. And in fact, there were some very distorted things people had to do in order to justify what it was that they were doing in the name of Christianity.”
You can watch our interview with Rasool Berry about Juneteenth: Faith and Freedom, right here:
Main image: Opal Lee, the grandmother of Juneteenth, with Rasool Berry in Juneteenth: Faith and Freedom.