As leaders and companies across the United States announce efforts to support Black people and culture during a time of widespread protests against systemic racism and police brutality, Juneteenth, a 155- year-old holiday celebrating the emancipation of African Americans from slavery in the U.S., has been in the news.
— jack⚡️ (@jack) June 9, 2020
So, what is Juneteenth and why is it important? Here is what you need to know.
What Is Juneteenth?
The holiday stems from June, 19,1865 when Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas to announce that the Civil War was over and that 250,000 slaves of Texas were free.
Granger and roughly 2,000 Union soldiers were there to enforce President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, which had gone into effect more than two years earlier, on January 1, 1863.
However, the more than 250,000 slaves in Texas were still shocked to hear the then years old news that they were free, according to the National Museum of African American History & Culture.
On June 19, in Galveston, Granger publicly read 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”.
Today, there remain varying accounts of why it took so long for the news of slavery’s abolition to reach Texas, with one story claiming that a messenger bearing the news was murdered on his way there. However, many historians note that Texas remained a Confederate state until 1865, when Robert E. Lee finally surrendered to the Union Army, and the state would therefore not have enforced Lincoln’s proclamation until the Union took control.
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.
Regardless, Granger’s arrival and the news that slavery had been abolished by the federal government kicked off widespread celebrations across the state.
The Importance of the Holiday
Simply put, Juneteenth is “the oldest nationally celebrated commemoration of the ending of slavery in the United States,” according to Juneteenth.com.
In addition to marking the date of major significance in American history, Juneteenth has always been both a day of remembrance and an opportunity for African Americans to honor their history and celebrate Black culture.
Gates Jr., writes that, over generations, Juneteenth became: “an occasion for gathering lost family members, measuring progress against freedom and inculcating rising generations with the values of self-improvement and racial uplift. This was accomplished through readings of the Emancipation Proclamation, religious sermons and spirituals, the preservation of slave food delicacies, as well as the incorporation of new games and traditions, from baseball to rodeos and, later, stock car races and overhead flights”.
How the Celebrations Evolved and Spread
In 1866, freed slaves in Texas marked June 19 with anniversary celebrations that included prayer services and church gatherings in the Black community.
In a 2007 essay titled Juneteenth: Emancipation and Memory, historian Elizabeth Hayes Turner wrote about former slaves and their descendants who continued celebrating the Juneteenth holiday for generations after 1865.
In 1872, a group of former Texas slaves collected more than $800 to buy 10 acres of open land, near what is now Houston, to use for annual Juneteenth celebrations. They named the parcel Emancipation Park, and it remains the oldest public park in the state.
As newly-freed Texas slaves began resettling across the country, as part of The Great Migration of former slaves, the tradition of Juneteenth celebrations also spread to new locales across the South and the rest of the U.S. over the next century.
However, especially during the post-Civil War Reconstruction and Jim Crow eras, former Confederate states had little inclination to recognize Juneteenth, according to Smithsonian Magazine. As such, the “grass-roots” aspect of Juneteenth celebrations was often the norm well into the 20th Century, which contributed to the Juneteenth holiday regularly going unnoticed by Americans outside of the Black community. It is still rarely mentioned in school curricula. As a result, “this monumental event remains largely unknown to most Americans,” the National Museum of African American History & Culture notes.
Juneteenth remained a major celebration for the Black community in Texas, however in 1938, Texas designated a day of observance for Juneteenth celebrations called Emancipation Day, two years after up to 200,000 people turned out for Juneteenth celebrations in Dallas.
Still, Juneteenth did not become an official state holiday in Texas until 1980 and the state’s government offices do not close for the holiday.
Overall, Juneteenth celebrations began to see a broader resurgence among the Black community in the middle of the 20th Century, especially amid the civil rights movement.
Is Juneteenth a National Holiday?
No. In recent years, presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump have issued statements of observance for the Juneteenth holiday, but efforts to make Juneteenth an official federal holiday have fallen short in Congress.
As of 2020, though 47 states and the District of Columbia have all passed legislation recognizing Juneteenth as either a state holiday or day of observance (Hawaii, North Dakota and South Dakota are the only states that do not recognize the holiday).
Currently, voter mobilization nonprofit NextGen America is circulating an online petition calling on Congress to recognize Juneteenth as a national holiday.
How Juneteenth is Celebrated Today
Juneteenth celebrations take place each year across the country.
In 2019, thousands of people celebrated the holiday in Houston’s Emancipation Park, the piece of land originally bought by a group of former salves for that very purpose (which received a $33 million renovation in 2016).
SAVE THE DATE!!
Join us in celebrating Juneteenth on June 15th from 10a-5p at EP. Our theme this year is 'Celebrating Our Legacy, Bridging Future Generations" Enjoy fun activities for the whole family including kids zone, stage performance, fun park tours, & more! #EPCJuneteenth pic.twitter.com/pu9y2OrQwH
— Emancipation Park Conservancy (@EPConservancy) March 28, 2019
As per the holiday’s traditions, celebrations still often feature some mix of religious services and storytelling, while incorporating music, food, parades, and other jubilant celebrations of Black culture.
This year, even as the significance of the holiday is amplified by the renewed flight against racial injustice in America, restrictions stemming from the coronavirus pandemic have had an effect on Juneteenth celebrations. Houston’s annual Juneteenth parade has been cancelled due to COVID-19 fears, and other cities have followed suit, while some are planning virtual events instead.