On June 19, 1865 – more than two months after Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox – Union General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas. Why? To tell 250,000 enslaved people that they were now free.
Thus, Juneteenth (combining June and the Nineteenth) became the day each year African Americans across the nation celebrate that freedom; though most in-person celebrations will be cancelled this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Most years, Juneteenth is a celebration with music, food, prayer, and storytelling. It represents an opportunity to educate people about the important moment in U.S. history when all slaves were finally freed, and about the rich heritage of African Americans.
Of course, the emancipation of enslaved African Americans in 1865 was already long overdue. Slavery existed in America for 250 years – although already outlawed in other countries. By law and in theory, the slaves had been free since Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation took effect on January 1, 1863. The reality; with the country mired in Civil War, freedom for most slaves could not happen until the war ended, and even then would be enforceable only if the Union prevailed.
The Union did prevail, thereby ending slavery – which was accomplished with the help of 179,000 African American men who served in the Union Army and an additional 19,000 who served in the Union Navy, in combat and noncombat roles. More than 40,000 Black men died in service during the war. African American women, unable to formally join the military, still served as nurses, scouts, and spies for the Union – one of the most famous among them was Harriet Tubman.
When the war ended, white Southerners were in no particular hurry to break the news to their now-former slaves, nor did information travel as instantly as it does today. Many continued to live and work as slaves for several months just as before, unpaid and abused. Once they learned of their freedom, many moved on to other states to reunite with loved ones or traveled to the northern states that had fought for their freedom.
Those who remained in the south found it difficult to celebrate their freedom. States and local jurisdictions passed segregation laws that prohibited African Americans from gathering in parks and other public lands. So a group of former slaves in the Houston area came up with $800 to buy 10 acres that became “Emancipation Park” in the 1870s. In 1926, another organization in the Texas community of Mexia bought the property where the reading of the Emancipation Proclamation had taken place in June 1865, and named it Booker T. Washington Park.
During the Great Depression, there was a decline in the popularity and participation in Juneteenth celebrations, but the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s rekindled interest. In 1980, Texas became the first state to recognize Juneteenth as an official state holiday. Today, all but four states (Hawaii, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Montana) celebrate Juneteenth as a state holiday or day of observance, with California making it official in 2003. The National Juneteenth Observance Foundation, based in Mississippi, is working to establish it as a national holiday.
This year, celebrations can be found both virtual and in-person offering music, camaraderie, and education.