Many don't know the answer. We should declare Dec. 6 Liberation Day.
I cringe every year when Black History Month rolls around. Don't get me wrong, I think it's important for all Americans to know something about "the black experience" that played such a big role in shaping the culture and politics of this nation.
But I'm always bothered by what we don't learn about black history during this February observance. Nothing makes me want to holler more than two important things we don't seem to know about slavery. And just what is that? Most Americans I encounter don't know when it started — or ended.
Without this vital historical context, non-blacks lack a foundation for understanding that "peculiar institution." Counting from the arrival of the first slave ship, blacks were enslaved a century longer than they have been free. These are important benchmarks of the journey blacks have made from enslavement to freedom. African Americans who don't know this lack a vital part of what Socrates said is the greatest knowledge a person can have: know thyself.
Sadly, most people don't know that the first slave ship docked in Jamestown, Va., in August 1619, a year before the pilgrims dropped anchor at Plymouth Rock. And most aren't aware that slavery in this country didn't officially end until Dec. 6, 1865, the day the 13th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified.
It didn't end on Jan. 1, 1863, when President Abraham Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation. That was a Civil War executive order that freed slaves only in parts of the South that were not under control of the Union Army. Slaves in sections of Virginia and Louisiana occupied by the Union Army were left in bondage — and those in the rest of the Confederacy weren't actually freed because Lincoln didn't control those rebellious areas.
And despite the fact that more than half of the states and the District of Columbia have a Juneteenth observance to celebrate the end of slavery, slavery wasn't ended in June 1865. That's when slaves in Galveston, Texas, learned of the Emancipation Proclamation. But by then, that presidential executive order was widely thought to be unenforceable, and the 13th Amendment had been passed by Congress and was sent to the states for approval.
So, the Juneteenth celebration of slavery's demise is something akin to telling a lie, when the truth will do better.
If anything of lasting value comes out of our annual homage to black history, I think it should be this: the designation of Dec. 6 as Liberation Day. It was on that day in 1865 that America's period of black enslavement, which lasted 246 years, officially came to an end.
Now I'm not talking about creating another national holiday — though Liberation Day ought be far more important to our national consciousness than New Year's Day, which just marks the turning of a page in the Gregorian calendar, and Columbus Day, a perpetuation of the myth of European discovery.
No, Liberation Day ought to be rooted in the determination of blacks to get our history right. Instead of people staying home, Liberation Day should cause blacks — and many other Americans -- to turn out for events that will help us to get to "know thyself."
"There are the stories that made America, and there are the stories that America made up," Bernard Kinsey, owner of one of this nation's most informative collections of black artifacts and memorabilia, told me. And he's right.
Making Dec. 6 our Liberation Day holiday would be a great way to ensure that black history is more fact than fiction.
DeWayne Wickham, dean of Morgan State University's School of Global Journalism and Communication, writes on Tuesdays for USA TODAY.
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