The state of California has reopened, and just in time for Juneteenth events that bring a great opportunity for celebration, education, and unity.

Formal portrait of Major General Gordon Granger.
Major General Gordon Granger

Juneteenth – combining June and the nineteenth – represents June 19, 1865, the day when 250,000 enslaved people in Texas were told by Major General Gordon Granger that they were now free.

It came more than two years after President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation took effect on January 1, 1863, which mattered little to the Confederacy because it ignored Union edicts until Lee surrendered on April 9, 1865. And because Texas’ Confederate constitution banned emancipation of enslaved people, the institution remained until Granger ended it that day in Galveston.

A year ago, the National Archives found Granger’s actual General Order No. 3, handwritten on his behalf by Major F.W. Emery, and which reads:

The People of Texas are informed that, in accordance with the 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 they will not be allowed to collect at military outposts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.

The last two sentences of Granger’s order hardly exuded equality, instead telling the newly freed people to stay put and work for pay for the same people who were their masters up until then.

“… the racist language used in the last sentences foreshadowed that the fight for equal rights would continue,” wrote Michael Davis of the National Archives News. 

Photograph of six African Americans who've learned they are slaves no more.
Slaves no more

Slavery did not officially end in the United States until December 6, 1865, when Georgia became the 27th state needed to ratify the 13th Amendment of the Constitution. Texas did not ratify the 13th Amendment until 1870, but it became the first state to recognize Juneteenth in 1980.

Regardless, June 19, 1865, became heralded as the day slavery ended. It has been known as Emancipation Day and African American Freedom Day, and the first known use of Juneteenth came in 1903.

Today, it is a paid holiday in eight states. Hawaii, North Dakota and Montana all passed legislation in the past year permanently recognizing the day, leaving only South Dakota as the only state that does not. And both houses of Congress this week passed resolutions to make Juneteenth a federal holiday. President Biden signed it on Thursday, in time to give federal workers the day off today (Friday) because the actual holiday this year falls on a Saturday.

California began recognizing it in 2003, but not as a paid holiday; although Santa Clara County began giving its employees the day off as such this year.

Black and white photo of African Americans parading down a street celebrating Juneteenth.
Historical Juneteenth celebration

Most years, Juneteenth is celebrated with music, food, prayer, and storytelling. It represents an opportunity to educate people about the important moment in U.S. history when enslavement ended, and about the rich heritage of African Americans. However, as with virtually everything else during the pandemic, last year’s Juneteenth celebrations were virtual.

This year, organizations in cities throughout the state are celebrating with in-person and virtual events, using the day to promote the achievements of African Americans and also justice and equality.

The California State Assembly asks the state’s residents to “honor and reflect on the significant role that African Americans have played in the history of the United States and how they have enriched society through their steadfast commitment to promoting unity and equality.”

The resolution reads in part:

“WHEREAS, Juneteenth commemorates African American freedom and emphasizes education and achievement. It is a day, a week, and in some areas, a month marked with celebrations, guest speakers, picnics, and family gatherings. It is a time for reflection and rejoicing. It is a time for assessment, self-improvement, and for planning the future. …”

Check your local news agencies for Juneteenth events in your area.

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