Juneteenth, explained

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Miss Juneteenth Sean-Maree Swinger-Otey waves to the crowd during the celebration parade in Denver, Colorado, on June 20, 2015. June 19, 2020, marks the 155th anniversary of Juneteenth. | Joe Amon/The Denver Post via Getty Images

The holiday’s 155-year history holds a lot of meaning in the fight for black liberation today.

As demonstrators across America fight to liberate black people, whether through calls to abolish the police or through legislative action against systemic racism, the country is getting ready to celebrate the 155th anniversary of one of its earliest liberation moments: Juneteenth.

A portmanteau of “June” and “nineteenth,” Juneteenth marks the day in 1865 when a group of enslaved people in Galveston, Texas, finally learned that they were free from the institution of slavery. But, woefully, this was almost two and a half years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation; the Civil War was still going on, and when it ended, Union Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger traveled to Texas and issued an order stating that all enslaved people were free, establishing a new relationship between “former masters and slaves” as “employer and hired labor.” As much as Juneteenth represents freedom, it also represents how emancipation was tragically delayed for enslaved people in the deepest reaches of the Confederacy.

Newly freed black people celebrated the first Juneteenth in 1866 to commemorate liberation — with food, singing, and the reading of spirituals — and take pride in their progress. But a century and a half later, Juneteenth is still not taught in most schools, nor is the event a federal holiday despite decades of pushing from activists. In 1980, Texas became the first state to declare Juneteenth an official holiday. In 2020, Washington, DC, and nearly every state recognize the day as a holiday or observance.

While Juneteenth celebrations span the world — the global diaspora has adopted the day as one to recognize emancipation at large — the calls for Juneteenth to be a national holiday have grown stronger amid a climate seeking justice for black lives. Just this month, a number of corporations and institutions like Nike and the NFL have announced plans to recognize Juneteenth as a company holiday. Coinciding with the worldwide protests against systemic racism, and the mounting cultural pressure to reckon with America’s racist history, Juneteenth is receiving increased attention in 2020.

Setting the foundation for Juneteenth

During the Civil War, the US Congress passed the Confiscation Act of 1862, which authorized Union troops to seize Confederate property, including enslaved people. The act also allowed the Union army to recruit black soldiers. Months later, as the nation approached its third year of the Civil War, President Lincoln on January 1, 1863, would affirm the aims of the act by issuing the final draft of the Emancipation Proclamation. The document declared that “all persons held as slaves […] are, and henceforth, shall be free.”

Lincoln wrote:

I do order and declare that all persons held as slaves within said designated States, and parts of States, are, and henceforward shall be free; and that the Executive government of the United States, including the military and naval authorities thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of said persons.

In 1863, the proclamation legally freed millions of enslaved people in the Confederacy, but it exempted those in the Union-loyal border states of Delaware, Maryland, Missouri, and Kentucky. These states held Confederate sympathies and could have seceded; Lincoln exempted them from the proclamation to prevent this. In April 1864, the Senate attempted to close this loophole by passing the 13th Amendment, prohibiting slavery and involuntary servitude in all states, Union and Confederate. But the amendment wouldn’t be enacted by ratification until December 1865.


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A group of formerly enslaved people who worked as laborers and servants with the 13th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment during the American Civil War, circa 1862.

And though the Civil War ended in April 1865 when Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox, Virginia, enslaved people in Texas didn’t learn about their freedom until June 19, 1865. On that day, almost two and a half years after Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger of the Union army arrived in Galveston and issued General Order No. 3 that secured the Union army’s authority over Texas. The order stated:

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.

The order reveals how slavery slowly unraveled as an institution in the early 1860s, as Union armies bored south, occupying plantations from the Southern border to the Deep South and finally to the periphery in Texas. Emancipation came gradually for many enslaved people, the culmination of a century of American abolition efforts, North and South.

Freedom came gradually ahead of the first Juneteenth celebration

Still, even under Order No. 3, as historian Henry Louis Gates Jr. noted, freedom wasn’t automatic for Texas’s 250,000 enslaved people. “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,” he wrote.

According to Gates, newly freed black women and men rallied around June 19th in that first year, transforming it from a “day of unheeded military orders into their own annual rite.”

The first Juneteenth celebration took place in 1866 in Texas with community gatherings, including sporting events, cookouts, prayers, dances, parades, and the singing of spirituals like “Many Thousands Gone” and “Go Down Moses.” Some events even featured fireworks, which involved filling trees with gunpowder and setting them on fire.

At the core of the celebrations was a desire to record group gains since emancipation, “an occasion for gathering lost family members, measuring progress against freedom and inculcating rising generations with the values of self-improvement and racial uplift,” Gates wrote.

Communities would read the Emancipation Proclamation as part of the tradition, which was especially significant during Reconstruction, when the holiday reinforced hope. Reconstruction (1863-1890) was a time to rebuild the Southern economy and society through the ratification of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, black-run Southern governments, and the work of the Freedmen’s Bureau, among other efforts.


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President Rutherford B. Hayes oversaw the end of Reconstruction. After the Civil War, reformers aimed to rebuild society through the passing of the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments, black-run Southern governments, and the work of the Freedmen’s Bureau.

But the goals of Reconstruction were consistently countered by white supremacists. For example, ex-Confederates were able to reestablish white supremacy throughout the 1880s after Democratic Congress members awarded Republican Rutherford B. Hayes the 1876 presidential election in exchange for the withdrawal of Union troops from the South, according to historian Richard M. Valelly’s The Two Reconstructions: The Struggle for Black Enfranchisement. After Hayes’s win, leaders at the state and local levels “weakened black voting in the South by means of gerrymandering, violence, and intimidation,” Valelly wrote.

Then in 1890, Mississippians drafted a white supremacist state constitution to disenfranchise local black people; it included provisions that required people be able to read and understand all parts of the state constitution in order to vote, according to the New York Times. This barred thousands of illiterate black people from voting in the 1890s.

Meanwhile, the Federal Elections Bill, or Lodge Bill, to oversee Southern elections failed in the summer of 1890, effectively closing the last window for national voting rights jurisprudence for decades to come. This signaled the end of Reconstruction and the beginning of Jim Crow. “Once black southerners were disenfranchised by the early 1900s, the stage was set for a systematic entrenchment of white supremacist norms and public policies,” Valelly wrote.

Then, and now, the symbolism and spirit behind Juneteenth remain sorely needed.

Over time, Juneteenth spread to neighboring states like Louisiana, Arkansas, Oklahoma, and eventually to California as black Texans moved west; it also appeared in Florida and Alabama in the early 20th century due to migration from Texas, wrote historian Alwyn Barr in The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture: Volume 4: Myths, Manners, and Memory.

According to Barr, Juneteenth observations declined in the 1940s during World War II but were revived in 1950 “with 70,000 black people on the Texas State Fair grounds at Dallas.” The celebrations would decline again as attention went to school desegregation and the civil rights movement in the late 1950s and 1960s. But they picked up again in the 1970s as advocates in Texas launched the first effort to make Juneteenth an unofficial “holiday of significance … particularly to the blacks of Texas.”

On January 1, 1980, Juneteenth became a Texas state holiday after state Rep. Al Edwards put forth legislation. Since that move, 45 states plus Washington, DC, now commemorate the day as a holiday or observance. Cities have also taken steps to specifically recognize Juneteenth at the municipal level. Philadelphia, the site of one of the country’s largest Juneteenth parades, recently passed an executive order designating Juneteenth an official city holiday for 2020. “This designation of Juneteenth represents my administration’s commitment to reckon with our own role in maintaining racial inequities and our understanding of the magnitude of work that lies ahead,” said Mayor Jim Kenney.

The shift in opinions and recognition of Juneteenth

Over time, Juneteenth has been called Emancipation Day, Jubilee Day, Juneteenth National Freedom Day, Juneteenth Independence Day, and Black Independence Day. Despite the many monikers, the day has faced competition from other emancipation holidays and has been mostly unknown to many Americans — until perhaps this year.

January 1 was once observed as Emancipation Day, for when the Emancipation Proclamation took effect in 1863. Juneteenth has also long been overshadowed by July 4, commonly known as America’s Independence Day, which marks the day the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776. Various cities celebrated emancipation on other days: In New York, people celebrated on August 1 to acknowledge the end of slavery in Great Britain; in DC, observers commemorated emancipation on April 16 for the day slavery ended in the District in 1862.


Dylan Buell/Getty Images for VIBE
Performers during the 48th Annual Juneteenth Day Festival in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on June 19, 2019.

Perceptions of Juneteenth have also changed over the past century. During World War I, white people and some black people even considered it un-American, unpatriotic, and shameful “because it focused attention on a dark period in U.S. history,” according to the authors of the academic article “When Peace Come: Teaching the Significance of Juneteenth.”

President Donald Trump, in an interview with the Wall Street Journal published on June 18, said Juneteenth “was an important event, an important time. But nobody had ever heard of it.” He was apparently unaware that his administration has previously commemorated the day.

One reason Juneteenth’s history has remained widely misunderstood, or even unknown, is because it’s not often taught in schools. Karlos Hill, an author and University of Oklahoma professor of African and African American, told Vox in 2018 that “Juneteenth as a moment in African-American history is not, to my knowledge, taught.” As for history textbooks that already tend to whitewash history, “I would be willing to guess that there are few, if any, mentions of this holiday,” Hill said.

In “Teaching the Significance of Juneteenth,” Shennette Garrett-Scott and others wrote, “It is sometimes hard to teach small but pivotal moments in American history. Survey classes mostly allow for covering the biggest events and the most well known people.” But to help students understand major moments like the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, it is important to teach the smaller historical milestones. To Garrett-Scott, teaching Juneteenth gives students a fuller picture of the long, enduring fight for freedom.

Another obstacle that remains for Juneteenth is the pervasive idea that it’s a “black thing,” much like Kwanzaa. “It is seen as a holiday that is just observed by African Americans and is poorly understood outside of the African American community. It is perceived as being part of black culture and not ‘American culture,’ so to speak,” Hill said.

In 2020, the meaning of Juneteenth is being seized more broadly by activists as an opportunity for the United States to come to terms with how slavery continues to affect the lives of all Americans today it is something for everyone, of every race, to engage in. Stereotypes about black people as being subhuman and lacking rationality are rooted in slavery; these harmful notions still rear themselves today as police officers disproportionately kill black people under a racist regime. Advocates argue that the national holiday obviously wouldn’t put an end to racism but would rather help foster dialogue about the trauma that has resulted from the enslavement of 4 million people for more than 250 years.

In the weeks leading up to Juneteenth 2020, a slate of companies, including Twitter and Nike, announced their decision to recognize the day as a paid company holiday. Texas Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, who has released a resolution each year to recognize the historical significance of Juneteenth, has plans to introduce legislation to make Juneteenth a federal holiday.

Other US citizens are taking the call to action into their own hands too, like 93-year-old Opal Lee of Fort Worth, Texas. Lee launched a Change.org petition seeking 1 million signatures to make Juneteenth a national holiday. Almost 300,000 people have signed it thus far.

This year, Juneteenth will be commemorated with protests, marches, a general workers strike, and opportunities for healing and joy across the country. It will also be celebrated as it has been for decades, with cookouts and parades, as well as church gatherings and spirituals, keeping in touch with the original tradition. In 1937, formerly enslaved man Pierce Harper recalled the first Juneteenth: “When peace come they read the ‘Mancipation law to the cullud people. [The freed people] spent that night singin’ and shoutin’. They wasn’t slaves no more.”



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