What is Juneteenth?
What is Juneteenth?
June 19, 1865, is a day that black Americans should never forget. A mixture 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. However, this was almost two and a half years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. Since that proclamation was made during the Civil War, it was ignored by Confederate states and it wasn’t until the end of the war that the Executive Order was enforced in the South. When the Civil War 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.”
Granger delivered the news himself, reading General Order Number 3:
"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 rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and free laborer."
As much as Juneteenth represents freedom, it also represents how emancipation was tragically delayed for enslaved people in the deepest reaches of the Confederacy. 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.
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. Corbis via Getty Images
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. 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 calls for Juneteenth to be a national holiday have grown stronger amid a climate seeking justice for black lives. In 2020, a number of corporations and institutions like Nike and the NFL have announced plans to recognize Juneteenth as a company holiday. New York and Virginia just joined the states reserving it as a paid holiday for their workers. 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.
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.
Marchers in Pittsburgh's Juneteenth celebration remember Antwon Rose II circa 2018
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, said in an 2018 interview 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 Congress, a bipartisan duo from Texas, Democratic Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee and Republican Sen. John Cornyn, are coordinating efforts to make Juneteenth a federal holiday. Two-thirds of Americans would like to see that happen. It won't necessarily be easy. The last federal holiday, to commemorate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., was proposed in 1968 and didn't become a reality for nearly 20 years. Others are suggesting alternatives to Juneteenth, including the dates marking the ratification of the 13th Amendment (Dec. 6, 1865) or the Emancipation Proclamation (effective Jan. 1, 1863).
The important consideration is a holiday each year that would perpetually serve as a means for Americans of every race to remember, learn about and celebrate the nation's enduring, but unfinished, aspiration of liberty and justice for all.
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