HISTORY OF JUNETEENTH
June Nineteenth, or Juneteenth, marks the celebration of the emancipation of African-American slaves in Texas in 1865. While the annual celebration started in Texas the following year in 1866 — and became an official Texas state holiday there in 1980 — this formerly obscure holiday it is now observed across the United States, and around the world, and is an official holiday in 47 states. It is celebrated with church-centered celebrations, parades, fairs, backyard parties, games, contests, and cookouts.
Originally it began in Galveston, Texas to mark the arrival of Major General Gordon Granger, along with 20,000 Union Army troops, who arrived two months after the end of the American Civil War to read General Order Number 3 which announced that “all slaves are free.” It read:
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.
President Abraham Lincoln‘s Emancipation Proclamation was made effective more than two years earlier on January 1, 1863, but because Texas was under Confederate government control until the end of the Civil War, and was the most remote of the slave states in revolt, Juneteenth remains a day to remember. Some slaves who had moved away from their former masters returned for the annual celebration.
Historical Context of Juneteenth
It is necessary to clear up some misunderstandings about what Juneteenth was, and what it was not. To do that, let’s look at the progression of slave liberation over almost a three year period.
1. January 1, 1863
Signed by Lincoln on September 22, 1863, but effective on January 1, 1863, almost 2 years into the Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation declared slaves to be free in only the 10 states of the Confederacy who were in open rebellion. This meant it changed their federal legal status in only those states, but it did not affect their liberation.
2. During the Civil War
Slaves would need to escape to a free state, or wait for the advancing Union armies to liberate them. Subsequently, 200,000 African-Americans did become Union soldiers, most of them former slaves.
3. April 9, 1865
The victory of the Union Army over the Confederacy brought the Emancipation Proclamation into effect in those 10 Confederate states that were in revolt, a subset of the slave states. This rolled out unevenly.
It was at this point in history that Juneteenth observed for Texas, and Texas alone, the effect of the Emancipation Proclamation. This was not the first Confederate state to free their slaves, it was the last of the rebelling slave states in the Confederacy to do so.
4. January 11 – December 18, 1865
However, other non-rebellious Southern slave states would subsequently need to pass their own laws particular to their state in order to affect liberation. For these states, slavery was still practiced.
These would include several of the slave-holding Southern states who didn’t change their laws until:
- January 11, 1865: Missouri
- Early 1865: Tennessee and counties that would become West Virginia
- April 1865: Thirteen parishes near New Orleans
- November 1865: Maryland
Slaves in Kentucky and Delaware were not freed until the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment.
5. December 18, 1865
It was not, however, until the passing of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, adopted on December 18, 1865, that all the slave-holding states would abolish slavery and involuntary servitude.
Observance of Juneteenth
Though the popularity of the celebration waned during the early 20th century with less emphasis on oral tradition and with the wider availability of classroom teaching, the Civil Rights movement of the ’50s and ’60s saw the wearing of Juneteenth freedom buttons, especially after the Poor People’s March in Washington D.C. in 1968.
Martin Luther King, Jr. had organized it, but following his assassination, Baptist minister and Civil Rights leader Ralph Abernathy led it.
This year, due to recent events, some companies will make the day a learning day, or a day without meetings, or a company holiday.
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian