On June 19, 1865, a Union general arrived in Galveston, Texas, to make an important announcement: Slavery had been abolished in the U.S., including in Texas, which was the last state practicing it.
That officer, Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger, “had no idea that, in establishing the Union Army’s authority over the people of Texas, he was also establishing the basis for a holiday, ‘Juneteenth’ (‘June’ plus ‘nineteenth’), today the most popular annual celebration of emancipation from slavery in the United States,” historian Henry Louis Gates Jr. wrote in an essay published a few years ago on The Root and PBS.org.
Many Americans, especially Black Americans, have been aware of Juneteenth and have been celebrating it for more than a century. But some of us, no matter our race, could use an introduction to or refresher on the date’s significance, especially now that President Joe Biden has signed a bill into law declaring it a federal holiday. That means most federal employees will get Friday off, as June 19 falls on a Saturday, and many private employers are observing the day as well.
"Throughout history, Juneteenth has been known by many names: Jubilee Day, Freedom Day, Liberation Day, Emancipation Day, and today, a national holiday," Vice President Kamala Harris, the first woman, first Asian-American, and first Black person to be vice president, said at the signing ceremony Thursday.
"We are gathered here in a house built by enslaved people. We are footsteps away from where President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. We have come far, and we have far to go. But today is a day of celebration. It is not only a day of pride. It's also a day for us to reaffirm and rededicate ourselves to action."
So, to help readers rededicate themselves, here's how Juneteenth came about.
The news of slavery’s end reached Texas, well, late. President Abraham Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation September 22, 1862, and it took effect January 1, 1863, freeing slaves in all states that had seceded and joined the Confederacy — not that it was possible to enforce it universally, as the Civil War would continue nearly two and a half years longer. Gen. Robert E. Lee, the top Confederate commander, surrendered in April 1865, but Confederate forces in the west kept on fighting, finally surrendering June 2. By then, many Southerners had brought their slaves to Texas, considered out of the reach of the Union Army.
After Granger announced that all enslaved people in Texas were free and that there would be “an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves,” life was still brutal for African-Americans in the state, as it was elsewhere in the South and much of the North. Some Texas slaveholders didn’t deliver the news to the people they held in bondage or simply failed to treat them as free, even though Granger’s proclamation said former slaves should be considered “hired labor” and paid wages. African-Americans who left their former masters were often hunted down and killed.
“Hardly the recipe for a celebration — which is what makes the story of Juneteenth all the more remarkable,” Gates wrote. “Defying confusion and delay, terror and violence, the newly ‘freed’ black men and women of Texas … 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.”
Juneteenth celebrations became a fixture in Texas over the succeeding years, with celebrants dressing in their finest clothes and gathering for a feast along with games, religious services, speeches, and political organizing. When white officials banned access to certain public parks, Black residents established their own spaces.
African-Americans in other parts of the U.S. sometimes celebrated emancipation on other milestone dates — September 22 or January 1 for the Emancipation Proclamation, January 31 for Congress’s passage of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865, abolishing slavery throughout the nation (a few states that allowed slavery had not seceded and were therefore not affected by the Emancipation Proclamation), or a few other dates. But as Black Texans migrated to other states, they brought the Juneteenth tradition with them — plus the date was one that usually promised good weather for outdoor events.
Juneteenth observances waned somewhat by the mid-20th century, as a romanticized, hugely inaccurate view of the antebellum South had spread through the nation, racist laws and attitudes endured, and African-Americans “felt increasingly disconnected from their history,” according to Gates.
But as history marched on in the 1960s, with both progress and tragedy, interest in Juneteenth was renewed. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had been planning a Poor People’s March, highlighting class inequality, at the time of his assassination in April 1968. His colleagues went ahead with the plan, but the march was not as large as they had hoped, so they ended it ahead of schedule — on June 19, 1968. That brought new attention to the date’s significance, and since then Juneteenth has been celebrated widely.
Texas passed a bill in 1979 making it a state holiday; the bill’s champion was Rep. Al Edwards, who became known as “Mr. Juneteenth.” He died in April 2020. More than 40 other states and the District of Columbia have since given Juneteenth some form of recognition.
Last year, when the deaths of Black Americans at the hands of police and others put a focus on systemic racism in the U.S., Juneteenth became particularly significant. Marches and demonstrations, both to celebrate the day and protest racial inequality, took place in just about every major city in the nation and many smaller ones. Observances are continuing around the U.S. this year; check your local newspaper or its online edition.
And you can definitely use the day to learn some history on your own (but keep up your studies after the day is over!) with works about African-American history and culture, and websites such as Juneteenth.com and NationalJuneteenth.com. There’s a curated list of scholarly articles on Juneteenth at Daily.JSTOR.org. Jamelle Bouie has an excellent New York Times column on the central role of enslaved African-Americans in winning their own freedom.
Juneteenth.com also features the official Juneteenth poem, “We Rose,” written by Kristina Kay Robinson. Here it is:
From Africa’s heart, we rose
Already a people, our faces ebon, our bodies lean,
Skills of art, life, beauty and family
Crushed by forces we knew nothing of, we rose
Survive we must, we did,
We rose to be you, we rose to be me,
Above everything expected, we rose
To become the knowledge we never knew,
Dream, we did
Act we must
And below is a video Google Doodle from last year, featuring LeVar Burton and the poem “Lift Every Voice and Sing” by James Weldon Johnson, with illustrations by artist Loveis Wise.