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Juneteenth: Through the Civil War to National Remembrance

Juneteenth: Through the Civil War to National Remembrance

Juneteenth - a woman with flowing dress stands with outstretched arm with bird flying behind her.
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Across the United States, Juneteenth, also known as Freedom Day, is celebrated annually on June 19th. The history of Juneteenth is a journey through the Civil War, one of the most fraught periods in American History, and a testament to the resilience of the American people. Commemoration of the Day of Freedom started as local community observances in Texas before growing into a cultural event, a call-to-action for social justice, and a nationally recognized holiday.

Juneteenth marks the day in 1865 when Union Army General Gordon Granger landed in Galveston, Texas, announcing that slavery had been abolished in the United States. Some two and a half years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. June 19th has been called Freedom Day, Jubilee Day, Liberation Day, and Emancipation Day. The most popular name for this day of observance is ‘Juneteenth,’ a mash-up of the words in the date ‘June’ and ‘Nineteenth.’


Origins of Juneteenth

Juneteenth emerged from the history of slavery in the United States. On January 1st, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, an executive order emancipating more than 3.5 million enslaved people in the Confederate states. However, the Proclamation did not immediately liberate all enslaved people in the United States. The Union would take over two years to completely emancipate enslaved Americans across the US. June 19th, 1865, was the day that news of emancipation finally arrived in the last remaining Confederate territory of Galveston, Texas, and thus is considered the day of freedom.

News paper segment documenting the arrival of General Order #3, the Emancipation Proclamation, and the freedom of all enslaved people.
Texans are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all enslaved people are free (June 21, 1865)


Limitations of the Emancipation Proclamation

Contrary to the simplified version of history taught in US schools, the Emancipation Proclamation did not abolish slavery altogether. Officially called Proclamation 93, the presidential edict only listed the ten secessionist states and did not apply to some territories loyal to the Union. Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri, Tennessee, and specific counties in Virginia, West Virginia, and New Orleans already under Union controls were exempt. Furthermore, where the executive order did apply, it only declared enslaved people in those states to be free and failed to proclaim slavery itself to be illegal.

The Proclamation’s limited scope allowed critics to question its moral standing. Enslavers in the Southern states used these discrepancies as a rationale for non-compliance. The Federal government could only enforce the executive order with local support in the secessionist states. Confederate leaders used this as justification for secession and the ensuing Civil War. Consequently, the fates of enslaved people in many parts of the country remained unchanged until after the war.


From Emancipation to Abolition

As the Civil War raged, Abolitionists seized on the Emancipation Proclamation as the moral imperative for the nation. They rallied anti-slavery sentiment into legislative action, and one by one, states throughout the Union adopted laws that abolished slavery in their jurisdictions.

As the Union army advanced on Confederate states, they could enforce the terms of Proclamation 93. Enslaved people escaped their plantations to cross the Union Army front lines and secure their freedom. At the same time, enslavers abandoned their homes and property as the Federal army advanced, leaving their enslaved servants behind. In this piecemeal manner, the Emancipation Proclamation took effect throughout the Southern territories.

News of the Emancipation Proclamation took over two years to reach Texas—the westernmost Confederate state. Texas had a large population of enslaved people, but news of their freedom traveled slowly due to the ongoing war and the state’s remote location. The reasons behind this delay in enforcing the Emancipation Proclamation in Texas remain unclear. Some historians believe leaders and enslavers deliberately withheld the news from enslaved Texans. Others suggest that the Union Army could not enforce the Proclamation due to a lack of resources in the region.

On June 19th, 1865, General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, with a proclamation that declared that all enslaved people in the state were free. This proclamation, known as General Order No. 3, significantly impacted the lives of enslaved people in Texas, who celebrated their newfound freedom with jubilation and hope.

Having united the states after the Civil War, congress finally passed the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution in December 1865, declaring that slavery was illegal throughout the nation.


Early Celebrations of Juneteenth

The first Juneteenth celebrations occurred in Texas in 1866, just a year after General Order No. 3 was issued. These celebrations were community-led events, including parades, picnics, and other festivities. African American communities used Juneteenth to celebrate their freedom, remember their past struggles, and honor their ancestors who had suffered under slavery.

As Juneteenth celebrations spread beyond Texas, they became more organized and formalized. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, Juneteenth celebrations included speeches, religious services, and other cultural events. Prominent African American leaders and groups, such as churches, fraternal organizations, and civil rights organizations, frequently led them.


Juneteenth Celebration at Emancipation Park 1880 touched up. A group photograph of thirty-one people at a Juneteenth Celebration in Emancipation Park in Houston's Fourth Ward. Reverend Jack Yates is pictured on the left and Sallie Yates is pictured in the center toward the front in a black outfit

1880 Juneteenth Celebration in Emancipation Park in Houston’s Fourth Ward

Juneteenth in the Jim Crow Era

Despite the importance of Juneteenth to African American communities, many white people opposed Juneteenth celebrations during the Jim Crow era. They actively worked to suppress the event’s commemoration. Some states even passed laws that restricted or prohibited Juneteenth celebrations.

Despite these challenges, Juneteenth became an important holiday for African Americans, and celebrations persisted in many communities. During the Civil Rights Movement, Juneteenth became a symbol of resistance and empowerment, as African Americans used the holiday to assert their rights and demand equality.


Recognition as a National Holiday

Juneteenth has experienced a resurgence of interest and celebration in the modern era. The holiday has become more widely recognized and celebrated in recent years. It has taken on new significance as a symbol of the racial justice and equality struggle.

The journey toward making Juneteenth a national holiday has been long and arduous. Despite being celebrated for over 150 years, the event was recognized mainly in Texas and a few other states until the 21st century.

In 1980, Texas officially declared Juneteenth as an official holiday, and many other states followed suit over the next few decades. However, it wasn’t until 2021 that Juneteenth became a federally recognized holiday in the United States.

The push for national recognition of Juneteenth as a holiday gained momentum with the Black Lives Matter movement and the racial justice protests that swept the country in 2020. The killing of George Floyd and other Black Americans by police officers sparked a renewed sense of urgency and activism around systemic racism and police brutality.

In June 2020, a group of senators introduced a bill to make Juneteenth a federal holiday. The bill gained bipartisan support and passed the House of Representatives and the Senate. On June 17th, 2021, President Joe Biden signed the law recognizing Juneteenth as a federal holiday—the first new holiday since Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 1983. It may be identified, but it’s still not universally celebrated. According to the Pew Research Center, as of 2022, 26 states still need to legislate Juneteenth as a paid public holiday.

Nevertheless, recognizing Juneteenth as a national holiday was a significant moment in American history and represented a long-overdue acknowledgment of the country’s history of slavery and racial oppression. It was also a tribute to the resilience and perseverance of African Americans, who have fought for freedom and equality for centuries.


From Celebration to Education

In many parts of the country, Juneteenth celebrations often include music, dancing, cookouts, and other activities highlighting African American culture and history. It’s a great way to unite communities and showcase African Americans’ rich and diverse history and culture.

Recently, there has been a growing emphasis on education and community outreach as part of Juneteenth celebrations. Many organizations and institutions hold educational and cultural events to commemorate Juneteenth. These events may include lectures, discussions, art exhibits, and performances that explore Juneteenth’s history and significance and African Americans’ contributions to American culture and society. The community uses it as a platform to advocate for policies and initiatives that promote equality and justice for all.


Reflection & Remembrance

Juneteenth is a time of reflection and remembrance. It is a day to honor the lives of the millions of people denied their freedom and dignity, to reflect on African Americans’ struggles and triumphs throughout history, and to recognize their ongoing challenges in pursuing equality and justice.

For many, Juneteenth is an occasion to reflect on their experiences with racism and discrimination and to recommit themselves to creating a more just and equitable society. Juneteenth reminds Americans to acknowledge the pain and trauma of the past while also looking forward with hope and determination for a better future.


Edited by Michael Moss

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