Freedom Ballot: Let My People Vote
By Chauncy Whaley, CVP Communications Intern
On this day, in 1865, more than two and a half years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, more than 150 enslaved workers in Limestone County, Texas, gathered around Logan Stroud as he read General Order No. 3, a dispatch from U.S. Major General Gorden Granger.
“The people of Texas are informed that,” they heard Stroud, one of the largest slave owners in east Texas, say, “in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, ‘all slaves are free.’”
Nearly 200 miles away in Jasper, Billy McCrea, a formerly enslaved person known as ‘Uncle Billy’, recounted the day he was told of his freedom. In an interview preserved by the Library of Congress, Uncle Billy recounted his life as a slave, during which he said he helped transport cotton with his father and their former master, Col. M., to a nearby city where they would weigh and sell the supplies.
Uncle Billy said he remembered Union Soldiers, who he referred to as Yankees, venturing throughout town for two days straight. When they left, Billy asked his mother Harriet where they were going. Col. M., who overheard their conversation, said to his mother, "Well, Harriet, all of you n— — is all free now. Yankees all going home."
Today we remember that fateful day, nearly 160 years ago, as Juneteenth – a celebration of the day enslaved people in the state of Texas were told of their freedom through the Union Army soldiers.
Since that day in 1865, the African American community has made significant strides in our path to political equality. In 1965, the Voting Rights Act gave us the right to cast our ballot. In 2008, Barack Obama became the first African American to be elected to the presidency, and in 2020, Kamala Harris was elected as the first African American woman Vice President. Between 1869 and 2023, 187 African Americans have been elected to Congress and countless others have held state and local positions.
When I think about what Juneteenth means to me personally, I wish I could say that I was taught about the holiday in school or at home, but sadly I cannot. The awareness of this day was not known to me until 2020. My educational background only allowed me to have a surface level knowledge of African American history but, in my adulthood, I have gained so much more understanding. That all started in 2008 with the election of Barack Obama and the opposition to him being elected. I remember many who were filled with the hope that he created during his campaign. But I also noticed that some seemed threatened by him being elected to this office. Their fears of change culminated into blatant racist narratives that propelled me to gain a broader understanding of the history of African Americans in this country.
Since then, I have been constantly learning and gaining perspective that has changed my view of the United States. Our constitution reads, “all men are created equal,” but our nation has not kept that promise. When I began to understand this, I began to understand what my mom meant when she always told me that I had to work twice as hard to gain as much information. One thing about history is that you can question everything. This holiday that I never knew anything about until recently has empowered me to become one of many to influence our country through voting. That is why I am proud to say that since I turned 18 I have been casting a ballot.
But as we reflect on the history of Juneteenth, we must also acknowledge all the progress that is yet to be made for the African American community that is still fighting for their voting power.
In Texas, the same communities that heard of their freedom for the first time in 1865 are now facing some of the strictest voting rights laws in the country. In 2021, the state legislature passed SB 1, which rolled back voting options like drive-thru voting, 24-hour voting, and the distribution of mail in ballot applications to all Texans – all of which were disproportionately utilized by communities of color. Then, during this year’s legislative session, officials passed SB 1933, a bill that gives the Secretary of State to arbitrarily eliminate election officials in counties with over 4 million residents. This includes Harris County, where more than 20% of the population is Black, and 44% are Latino. Under the law, these voters are now subject to greater state control over elections administration, and are being stripped of the ability to choose how to run their elections, which could result in confusion and chaos for voters trying to cast their ballot in future elections.
In Florida, where I go to school and have lived my whole life, voters in my community are facing many of the same barriers. Senate Bill 7050, which was passed during this year’s legislative session, imposed even more restrictions on third party voter registration organizations that are relied on by people of color five times more than their white counterparts. Three lawsuits have already been filed against the bill, including one from the NAACP that argues the bill violates the First and Fourteenth Amendments.
My campus, Edward Waters University in Jacksonville, Florida, is not immune to these barriers. EWU was established in 1866, a year after the end of the Civil War and the proclamation of freedom in Texas, making it the oldest Historically Black College or University in the state of Florida. What started out as a high school to educate newly freed slaves eventually became a university that inspired those who have had the honor to sit in its classrooms to become leaders in our community, country, and world. Leaders such as Florida State Senator Tracie Davis, past and present members of the Jacksonville City Council like former Council President Samuel Newby and newly elected Councilman Rahman Johnson, and former Sheriff of the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office Nat Glover – who was elected in 1995, making him the first African American elected as Sheriff in Florida since the end of reconstruction – all graduated from EWU. I now have the opportunity to follow in the legacy they created to make a difference for my future.
But even as I learn more about my history and am more motivated than ever to vote, the right to do so is being infringed upon. My elected officials removed an early voting site from the campus after the 2018 Midterm Elections, and in 2020, I saw the severe impact it had on my fellow scholars and our surrounding community.
This left our community with two options to vote in person: Travel miles away to the closest polling location, or find a way to vote on Election Day. But some students I interacted with didn’t have transportation to travel off-campus, and too many of my peers were busy with class, jobs, and other commitments to stand in line at a polling place on Election Day. These students want their voice to be heard, and they know the importance of youth turnout. But without accessible and convenient voting options, our voices are being silenced.
This problem is not limited to my state. Last year, Campus Vote Project partnered with MTV to look into college students’ voting access and found that in 2020, 74% of colleges had no on-campus polling sites and 90% did not have in-person early voting options on campus.
Extremist, anti-voter actors are undermining the integrity of our democracy by targeting young voters simply because of perceived political affiliations. Protecting voting rights for students is not a partisan issue – plain and simple. Politicians picking and choosing which voters have a say in our government is a threat to fair and free elections, and the fundamental values of our democracy.
To truly celebrate this holiday, we must remember that the Black community has more challenges to conquer.
Juneteenth is not just a celebration of the day enslaved people were freed in Texas, but it is a celebration of years of liberation as a community and as individuals.
We must celebrate the day when you first registered to vote, and the understanding that freedom can come in the form of casting your ballot. We must celebrate the moment a young Black leader chooses to put people first and run for public office. We must celebrate each other when we challenge laws that don't favor the greater good for all people, or as Representative John Lewis said, “get in good trouble.”
In 1865, more than 250,000 Americans were told the news that they were free. Today, we have the opportunity to make good on that promise and free millions more from the bondage of voting suppression.