Juneteenth, a hybrid of ‘June’ and ‘nineteenth’, may not be the most creative name for a holiday. Still, this date remains an important anniversary in American history. What is Juneteenth, you ask? It was on this date back in 1865 that slavery was finally abolished in Texas. Today, it is the oldest known celebration honoring the end of slavery in the United States.
Now, you might be asking yourself a few questions. Wasn’t it the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 that freed the slaves? Didn’t the Civil War end in May of 1865? Why did it take so long for slavery to end in Texas?
Those are all good questions. We’ll try to answer them as we take a quick look back at the history of Juneteenth.
The Emancipation Proclamation
The Emancipation Proclamation was formally issued by President Abraham Lincoln on January 1st, 1863. Many people assume that this declaration meant immediate freedom for slaves across the nation. This was not the case. The Proclamation was worded in such a way that only slaves in Confederate States that were actively in rebellion were freed. Also remember that the country was still very much at war in 1863. Unsurprisingly, the Confederacy did not adhere to Lincoln’s declaration.
This also isn’t to say the Emancipation Proclamation had no impact. News of it led many slaves to escape the bondage of their masters and flee behind Union lines. Many would obtain their freedom and join the Union Army.
Slavery in Texas
While many of the other Confederate States were locked up in battle, Texas remained somewhat unscathed by the war. This was due in part to its location geographically. As such, many slave owners viewed Texas as a refuge to preserve their way of life. During the course of the war, many would move there with their slaves to escape fighting. By 1865, thousands of slaves were living in Texas.
The Civil War formally ended on May 9, 1865, following a declaration from President Andrew Johnson. News traveled slowly in those days though. It took nearly two months for that news to reach Texas.
It wasn’t until June 19 that Union General Gordon Granger and his federal troops arrived in Galveston, Texas. They were tasked with taking control of the state and enforcing the Emancipation Proclamation.
While standing on the balcony of Galveston’s Ashton Villa, Granger read aloud the contents of his ‘General Order No. 3’. In it, he declared, “The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free.”
Slaves were obviously elated by the news, but unfortunately, freedom did not instantly come for everyone. Many slave masters withheld this information from their slaves, and those slaves continued to work in bondage through the harvest season.
What is Juneteenth?
On June 19, 1866, freed slaves organized the first of what would become annual Juneteenth celebrations in Texas. Since many cities banned African Americans from using public parks, many freedmen pooled their money and bought their own land to hold celebrations on. Some of these parks are still in existence today.
During the early 20th century, Juneteenth celebrations began to decline. Many Southern states passed laws that essentially relegated African Americans to second-class status at best. It was tough to celebrate freedom when living in a constant state of fear and oppression.
During the Great Depression, many African Americans moved off farms and into cities to try and find work. It became even harder to observe Juneteenth, as taking time off work to celebrate was often impossible. However, during the Civil Rights era, Juneteenth began to go through a bit of a resurgence, especially as many young African Americans wanted to better connect with their ancestral roots.
Overtime, as more and more African Americans fled farms to work in cities, and as Juneteenth continued to reenter public consciousness, the holiday began to spread. People brought Juneteenth from Texas to the West Coast, Midwest, Northeast, and all the other places they went. In 1980, Texas was the first state to establish Juneteenth as a state holiday. Since then, the holiday has continued to become even more widely celebrated.
Today, Juneteenth commemorations continue across the country. These celebrations often feature music, BBQs, and other activities. The majority of US states observe the holiday.
Do you celebrate Juneteenth? If so, let us know how you plan to celebrate in the comment section below.