Juneteenth commemorates the day in 1865 when more than 250,000 enslaved Black people in Texas finally received word of their freedom conferred by President Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation.

Yet slavery continued in the U.S. beyond June 19, 1865, because, as Illinois State University Professor of History Touré Reed notes, it was the ratification of the 13th Amendment, not the Emancipation Proclamation, that abolished chattel slavery nationwide.

In a 2022 essay published in Common Dreams, titled “Why Juneteenth Celebrations Should Acknowledge the 13th Amendment,” Dr. Reed makes the case for why Juneteenth, a federal holiday since 2021, should focus more on the 13th Amendment—and why it matters.

“I appreciate Juneteenth’s ideals, but it’s important to amplify the importance of the 13th Amendment, which is what actually abolished slavery,” said Reed, the co-director of African American Studies.

“It’s really dangerous to displace the importance of the 13th Amendment in Black American’s centuries-long quest for freedom and fair play, because the 13th Amendment was foundational to that.”

Dr. Touré Reed

Elected in 1860, Lincoln and his fellow antislavery Republicans believed slavery was not only immoral but also a hindrance to American democracy and economic development; however, slavery was protected by the U.S. Constitution.

Although Lincoln lacked authority to abolish slavery, he aimed to halt its expansion in the South through a containment policy. According to Reed, the implications of Lincoln’s plan prompted 11 of 15 slaveholding states to secede from December 1860 to the summer of 1861.

“Through the act of secession, the Confederacy gave antislavery Republicans a free hand to abolish slavery—not throughout the United States, because slavery was guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. But it gave them a free hand to abolish slavery in the states that were engaged in insurrection, because those states broke the law,” Reed said.

Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation conferred freedom exclusively to slaves in Confederate territories on January 1, 1863, not to slaves in already-conquered territories nor the four slaveholding border states that remained in the Union (Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, and Delaware).

And while Louisiana (1864), Maryland (1864), Missouri (January 1865), Tennessee (January 1865), and West Virginia (February 1865) abolished slavery before the Civil War ended, slavery continued legally in Delaware and Kentucky—after Juneteenth—until ratification of the 13th Amendment on December 6, 1865.

“What Juneteenth commemorates is not the abolition of slavery in the United States because slavery persisted in the United States for another half-year following Juneteenth,” Reed said. “What Juneteenth actually commemorates is the enforcement in Texas of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.”

Reed said he’s not making a case against Juneteenth National Independence Day.

“As a Black American, I appreciate the symbolic value of a national holiday that makes plain the Declaration of Independence did not promise equality to all Americans,” Reed writes.

However, Reed contends that ignorance of, or even opposition to, the 13th Amendment can be “dangerous.” He writes that over the past several years “the 13th Amendment has gotten a surprisingly bad rap, as a growing number of Americans have come to identify the 13th Amendment as the origin of contemporary mass incarceration.”

This interpretation is based on the amendment’s felony exception clause, according to Reed, which states, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

Reed notes that involuntary servitude for debtors and criminals was a “long-accepted form of punishment” in Europe, England, the American colonies, and Africa when the amendment was written. “To be clear, I am not endorsing such practices,” Reed writes. “Indeed, I see no value, today, in the 13th Amendment’s felony exception clause.”

When analyzing the 13th Amendment, Reed said it’s also important to consider the framers’ motives, which did not include leaving the door open for a return of chattel slavery.

“Since the North paid a steep price for its war against the southern ‘slaveocracy,’ northerners would not have abolished slavery only to lay the groundwork for its reintroduction,” Reed writes.

According to Reed, pinning contemporary mass incarceration on the 13th Amendment undercuts the amendment’s significance and ignores systematic and societal factors that he blames for the overrepresentation of African Americans among the inmate population.

Reed points to the origins of mass incarceration in the 1960s—not the 1800s—as the U.S. economy transitioned from blue-collar industrial to white-collar high-tech. He said people of color were disproportionately affected by growing unemployment, and poverty leads to higher crime rates.

“By the late 20th century, incarceration functions to warehouse those people who have been left behind thanks to the transformation of the U.S. economy, which no longer produces jobs in which people who don’t have a lot of formal education can be paid a living wage,” Reed said. “If we want to address mass incarceration, we have to address poverty.”

But Reed cautions against blaming the 13th Amendment. Rapper Kanye West notably called for the amendment to be abolished in 2018. He later clarified that he wanted it to be amended instead.

“It’s really dangerous to displace the importance of the 13th Amendment in Black American’s centuries-long quest for freedom and fair play, because the 13th Amendment was foundational to that,” Reed said.

Reed is hopeful that Juneteenth can serve as a “starting point” for Americans to learn more about the complex history of our past, including the significance of the 13th Amendment.

“What I appreciate about Juneteenth, is that it acknowledges the limitations of American democracy,” Reed said.

“If we’re going to be honest about the nation in its present form, we have to be honest about the nation’s past. Because while history does not repeat itself—that’s a cliche that’s not exactly true—you can draw lessons from the historical past.”