Juneteenth, celebrated on June 19 across the United States, marks an important milestone in the struggle for freedom. Juneteenth marks the day slavery was abolished in Texas, over two years after President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.
On January 1st, 1863, President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation but slavery continued.
On June 19th 1865, In Texas, enslaved Africans learned of the Civil War’s end and celebrated their emancipation
On December 6th, 1865, The 13th Amendment of the Constitution was ratified, officially abolishing slavery in the United States. The Emancipation Proclamation on January 1st, 1863 did not end slavery. It only freed slaves in rebelling states. Slaves in border states — Delaware, Maryland, Missouri, and Kentucky — were still in bondage. The 13 Amendment on December 6th, 1865 officially ended slavery
On June 19th 1865, Union General Granger led his troops into Galveston, TX and announced to 250,000 formerly enslaved Africans that President Lincoln, with the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, had declared them free—more than 2 years earlier.
“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 personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.” — General Orders, Number 3; Headquarters District of Texas, Galveston, June 19, 1865
The Emancipation Proclamation had little impact on enslaved Texans due to the minimal number of Union troops to enforce the new Executive Order. However, with the surrender of General Lee and the confederate army in April of 1865, and the arrival of General Granger’s regiment, the Union forces were finally strong enough to influence and overcome the resistance.
General Granger’s famous General Orders Number 3 (quoted above) wasn’t exactly instant magic for most of the Lone Star State’s 250,000 slaves. On plantations, masters had to decide when and how to announce the news — or wait for a government agent to arrive — and it was not uncommon for them to delay until after the harvest. Even in Galveston city, the ex-Confederate mayor flouted the Army by forcing the freed people back to work
Those who acted on the news did so at their own risk. Hardly the recipe for a celebration — which is what makes the story of Juneteenth all the more remarkable. Defying confusion and delay, terror and violence, the newly “freed” black men and women of Texas, with the aid of the Freedmen’s Bureau (itself delayed from arriving until September 1865), now had a date to rally around. In one of the most inspiring grassroots efforts of the post-Civil War period, they transformed June 19 from a day of unheeded military orders into their own annual rite, “Juneteenth,” beginning one year later in 1866.
On June 19, 1866, former slaves in Galveston, Texas, celebrated a year of emancipation with the “Juneteenth” holiday. Juneteenth celebrations quickly spread to the rest of the country, and the date continues to be the oldest known tradition honoring the end of slavery in the U.S.
In Texas, former slaves almost immediately organized and purchased lands as “emancipation grounds” for the annual Juneteenth (short for June 19th) gathering. Emancipation Park (formerly the Colored Emancipation Park) in Houston, Emancipation Park in Austin, and Emancipation Park in Mexia (now Booker T. Washington Park) were all created as sites for Juneteenth celebrations.
Today, Juneteenth celebrations include picnics, rodeos, barbeques, parades, and readings of the Emancipation Proclamation and the work of African-American authors such as Ralph Ellison, whose posthumously published second novel is titled Juneteenth.
in 1979 Texas became the first state to make Juneteenth an official holiday. Since then, 41 other states and the District of Columbia have recognized Juneteenth as a state holiday or holiday observance,
In 2019, the fight for racial justice continues.
Ironically, while Juneteenth has become the most prominent Emancipation Day holiday in the US, it commemorates a smaller moment that remains relatively obscure. It doesn’t mark the signing of the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, which technically freed slaves in the rebelling Confederate states, nor does it commemorate the December 1865 ratification of the 13th Amendment, which enshrined the end of slavery into the Constitution. Instead, it marks the moment when emancipation finally reached those in the deepest parts of the former Confederacy.
In many ways, Juneteenth represents how freedom and justice in the US has always been delayed for black people. The decades after the end of the war would see a wave of lynching, imprisonment, and Jim Crow laws take root. What followed was the disproportionate impact of mass incarceration, discriminatory housing policies, and a lack of economic investment. And now, as national attention remain focused on acts of police violence and various racial profiling incidents, it is clear that while progress has been made in black America’s 154 years out of bondage, considerable barriers continue to impede that progress.
Those barriers may remain until America truly begins to grapple with its history. There are those in this society that still hold on to the idea that the Civil War wasn’t about slavery, it was about states’ rights or Northern aggression against slavery. Juneteenth is a moment where we step back and try to understand the Civil War through the eyes of enslaved blacks.
Image: A float travels through Philadelphia city center during the annual Juneteenth parade.