What Every American Should Know About Juneteenth

The day represents the end of slavery and the beginning of freedom for African Americans

The Oak Park Drill Team makes their way through North Minneapolis in parade formation as part of the Juneteenth celebrations in 1995. Photo: Star Tribune via Getty Images

Juneteenth Freedom Day, also referred to as Black Independence Day, Juneteenth Independence Day, and just plain Juneteenth, is the celebration of the June 19, 1865 announcement by Union General Gordon Granger in Galveston, Texas conveying the Civil War ended and all enslaved people were now free.

Most people assume the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, freed the enslaved. For the longest time, I did too.

But like most American history I learned in school, there’s usually more to it.

This is what really happened.

A Juneteenth celebration, in Texas, 1900. Photo: Grace Murray Stephenson via Austin History Center/Wikimedia Commons

The Emancipation Proclamation called for instantaneous freedom for all enslaved people throughout the nation. However, since the country was still fighting the Civil War at the time the proclamation was issued, the Confederate states that seceded from the Union thumbed their noses at the executive order. And if there weren’t enough Union troops around to enforce the order, the enslaved people in those states remained enslaved.

One of President Abraham Lincoln’s greatest accomplishments is that he freed the enslaved. And it should be, although Lincoln’s purpose was not to save the enslaved, but to save the Union.

In the summer of 1862, the editor of the New York Tribune, Horace Greely, wrote an editorial berating Lincoln for not abolishing slavery. Lincoln responded: “My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union and is not either to save or destroy slavery. What I do about slavery and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save this Union…”

The Emancipation Proclamation gave Lincoln some political clout and increased the Union military strength because the enslaved Black men could fight for the Union. Although they faced discrimination, (yes, in the Union army) they fought courageously for their new freedom and the Union.

But why did it take so long for Texas to comply?

Juneteenth Freedom Day is the oldest known celebration observing the end of enslavement in the United States.

The Juneteenth website offers multiple versions about why it took two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation for Texas to fall in line.

  1. The news was intentionally hidden by the enslavers to keep utilizing free labor.
  2. A messenger with the news of freedom was murdered before he reached Texas.
  3. Federal troops waited with the news so the Texans could get one last “free labor” cotton harvest.

Regardless of which, if any, version is true, the fact remains that Texas was the most western Confederate state and had the least amount of Union troops to enforce the executive order. But when General Robert E. Lee surrendered and the war ended in April 1865, that changed everything. Upon arriving in Galveston on June 19, 1865, General Granger read General Order Number 3:

“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 rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and free laborer.”

Juneteenth: The holiday

Juneteenth Freedom Day is the oldest known celebration observing the end of the enslavement of human beings in the United States. June 19, 1865, became a day of great joy, and also a day of uncertainty, fear, prayer, reassurance, sharing, and love. According to junteenth.com, some descendants of former enslaved Texans still embark on an annual pilgrimage to Galveston to commemorate the day.

Juneteenth is celebrated with food, fun, family, and friends, but it’s also a day to celebrate our ancestors, freedom, culture, and achievements.

In 1980, Texas declared “Emancipation Day in Texas” a legal state holiday in honor of Juneteenth. Today, 47 states and the District of Columbia acknowledge a Juneteenth state holiday or state holiday observance.

Hawaii, North Dakota, and South Dakota do not.

Like most holidays, Juneteenth is celebrated with food, fun, family, and friends, but for many African Americans, it’s also a day to celebrate their ancestors, freedom, culture, and achievements. Today local organizations, communities, and institutions like the Henry Ford Museum and the Smithsonian are promoting an appreciation of African American history and sponsoring cultural events with Juneteenth-focused activities.

If you live in a state that doesn’t acknowledge Juneteenth as a state holiday or observance and you think that it should, contact your state senator and state representative to support Juneteenth legislation.

Unfortunately, national holiday recognition is another fight… for another day.

“Now I’ve been free; I know what a dreadful condition slavery is. I have seen hundreds of escaped slaves, but I never saw one who was willing to go back and be a slave.” — Harriet Tubman, writer, and civil rights activist

I’m a web copywriter who is an avid student of Black history, a political news junkie, and a wannabe chef that loves to cook.

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