Juneteenth should be far more well-known than it is, especially among Jews – I wrote about just as much already one year ago. On June 19, 1865, then-commander of the District of Texas, Gen. Gordon Granger, publicized General Order No. 3 to enslaved African-Americans in Texas. Invoking the then two-and-a-half-year-old Emancipation Proclamation, this order began with the mighty words: “The people of Texas are informed that in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection, therefore, existing between them becomes that between employer and free laborer.”
At the time, Texas was both the last bastion of the Confederacy and the last state to have the proclamation announced after the recently ended Civil War (two months earlier).
At the time, there simply were not enough Union troops to both announce and enforce the proclamation sooner. Nevertheless, this was meant to mark a universal new beginning. Celebrations broke out immediately, leading to the annual joyous markings of the occasion.
But the truth is, Granger might not have been able to announce the proclamation but for the subtle role of one key member of the Jewish community.
Rosanna Osterman helped establish the Jewish community of Galveston, most notably establishing and financing the Jewish cemetery and early synagogues. Not only a philanthropist, Osterman was also a nurse. But really she was much more than that: Osterman regularly took in patients during earlier Yellow Fever outbreaks and set up a temporary hospital for troops in her home.
It’s not clear if Granger made an actual announcement or simply published the orders directed by the Proclamation. Regardless, Granger’s orders were issued from Rosanna Osterman’s office.
Most peculiar, however, is that even though Osterman tended to both Union and Confederate soldiers, she was a friend and agent of the Confederacy. The Confederate Army had planned to retake Galveston island on January 12, 1863. This secret maneuver was leaked to the Union troops by a runaway slave.
How do we know this? Osterman learned this from a wounded Union soldier she tended. She then informed the Confederate general in Houston, who in turn advanced the schedule of his attack to January 1. The Confederate troops were victorious, and Galveston again flew the Confederate flag serving as a Confederate port.
And yet, after the war when it finally became time, Osterman did teshuvah. She was ready to help support the mission of freeing the slaves and recognizing others as equal – and no longer other.
Osterman played a subtle, passive, but integral role in this important chapter of freedom 150 years ago. But what we realize now is that Juneteenth celebrates a first emancipation – and that freedom is not fully realized. And we, today, have not been involved in the struggle enough – those of us not of color, we cannot hide behind our white privilege.
Though we should follow Osterman’s example of teshuvah, unlike Osterman, our role today should be overt, active, and even more catalytic. We should not be aiding the confederacy, so to speak. Our message should be emancipation across the land, and hurriedly so.
Here’s a start: Listen to your neighbors and friends and strangers of color; talk to your children about race and racism; get involved in your congregation/business/organization diversity committee; check your own biases; get involved in politics in the name of equality and equity; expand your social circle. And those are just the easy beginning steps.
God-willing, next Juneteenth, we can celebrate true freedom with our African-American brothers and sisters, freedom and justice for which we pursued with every beat of our heart.