When the very first U.S. census was conducted on Aug. 2, 1790 — mandated by Article I, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution — Blacks were counted as “three-fifths of a person.”
American Indians weren’t counted at all, their humanity disavowed until 1870.
Blacks were enslaved, not to be freed until 75 years later, when the 13th Amendment would abolish slavery on Jan. 31, 1865, that monumental law then ratified on Dec. 6, 1865.
“Black Census Day being held on Juneteenth is important,” said statewide census director Marishonta Wilkerson of the Illinois Department of Human Services.
“It’s about back in the day, when we were counted as three-fifths of a person, not considered whole. And in some ways, we aren’t whole now. But at least we aren’t counted as three-fifths of a person,” she said.
“The census is a way for the government to see us, to hear us, to give us in our state, in our communities, the resources that we need.”
Juneteenth, annually celebrated on June 19 is the Black community’s commemoration of the emancipation of slaves in the holdout state of Texas, on June 19, 1865.
News of the Emancipation Proclamation issued by President Abraham Lincoln on Jan. 1, 1863 — as the nation entered a third year of Civil War — was intentionally withheld from slaves in Texas, the most remote state, so that 2 1⁄2 years later, they were the last to be freed.
Juneteenth then — so named as a portmanteau of “June” and “nineteenth” — is considered by Blacks the accurate end date to America’s great sin of slavery.
Facing a lagging 66% response rate with the 2020 census, Wilkerson’s department has declared this Friday Black Census Day, highlighting the once-a-decade count’s potential to impact racial inequities through funding for disadvantaged communities.
“The census is a form of protest. It goes hand in hand with what is happening in our nation right now with the Black Lives Matter movement, and with the push for social justice, equity and reform,” Wilkerson said.
“We are not the only hard-to-count population, but we are one of them, so we have to let people know that in the midst of protesting, in the midst of supporting Black-owned businesses, completing the census is another way to support their communities.”
Community groups and businesses in areas with large Black populations — the South Side and West Side, south suburbs, East St. Louis — will promote it all week, culminating in a Black Census Day on Instagram Live event from 7 to 8:30 p.m. Friday.
Hosted by DJs Tone Kapone and Sean Mac of WGCI-FM and IHeart Radio, guests will include Gov. J.B. Pritzker, Lt. Gov. Julianna Stratton, members of the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus, rapper Taylor Bennett (brother of Chance the Rapper), and many others.
“We’ll be celebrating freedom in so many ways,” said Stratton.
“Juneteenth of course being when the 200,000 or so people who were enslaved in Texas finally got word that they were free, and it will also be a celebration of the power of completing the census, what that means for the Black community,” she said. “Census is about representation.”
In Illinois, 42% of Black residents, 33% of Latinos, and 20% of children under age 5 live in hard-to-count communities. Still, the state has the eighth-highest response rate nationally, after the count became hobbled by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Every household nationwide should have received a mailer from the U.S. Census Bureau asking them to complete online, via phone or mail the survey tallying every U.S. resident. Extended through Oct. 31, it will determine how federal dollars will be distributed for 10 years.
The census impacts funding for vital services such as education, health care and transportation, and just a 1% undercount can mean a $195 million a year lost in federal funds. Illinois committed $29 million to the count, the largest per-person investment of any state, Stratton noted.
“We have moved beyond a moment in time, and we are seeing ourselves in the midst of a movement where we are examining the systems in this country. And just about every system that we are examining has its roots in racist beginnings,” said Stratton.
“In every single state in the nation and around the globe, we are hearing people proclaim Black Lives Matter. I think what people are really looking for is for us to make sure that statement is reflected in policies we create, laws that we pass, and investments made in our communities that have suffered the most from disinvestment.”