Juneteenth, also known as Emancipation Day, Freedom Day, and Black Independence Day in the United States, celebrates the freedom of some 250,000 enslaved people in Texas in 1865. It is not the day slavery legally ended but it is the oldest known celebration honoring the end of slavery in the United States.
In fact, slavery had ended in 1863 with an executive order called the Emancipation Proclamation that called for the immediate freedom of slaves throughout the country. Unfortunately, many enslaved people, especially those in the South, were still not free. The country was in the middle of a Civil War and states like Texas which had seceded from the Union did not adhere to the Proclamation.
Here are 10 key events surrounding the day:
1. In 1863, during the American Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which announced: “That all persons held as slaves are, and henceforward shall be free.” It declared that more than three million slaves living in the Confederate states should be free. However, in the midst of the Civil War, the United States could not free those enslaved people held by Confederates.
2. When the Confederacy started losing the war, Texas became a refuge for slaveholders to continue to keep their slaves in bondage. Texas at the time did not have much U.S. Army presence since there was little fighting there. In other words, it was not closely monitored like other states during the war so many enslavers took their slaves there. According to National Geographic, over 150,000 slaves were moved to Texas.
3. After the Emancipation Proclamation, slavery continued in Texas until two and a half years later when Union General Gordon Granger and his soldiers arrived in Galveston, Texas, on June 19, 1865, and made residents aware that slavery had been abolished.
4. On that June 19, Granger performed a public reading of 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 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.”
5. NBC News reports that the enslaved people who received the news that they had been freed started jubilating. The outlet cited the book, “Lone Star Pasts: Memory and History in Texas,” in which Felix Haywood, a former slave who gave a testimony about Juneteenth as part of a New Deal project, recounted:
“The end of the war, it come jus’ like that—like you snap your fingers….Hallelujah broke out….Soldiers, all of a sudden, was everywhere—comin’ in bunches, crossin’, walkin’ and ridin’. Everyone was a-singin.’ We was all walkin’ on golden clouds….Everybody went wild…We was free. Just like that we was free.”
6. However, not every slave in Texas was freed after Granger’s announcement of emancipation. Some slaves still worked through the harvest season because their owners kept the news of their freedom from them in order to benefit from their labor.
7. Many Black people were also exposed to racist abuse and violence including rape and lynchings in their communities. As Susan Merritt reported in “Lone Star Pasts”, “Lots of Negroes were killed after freedom…bushwhacked, shot down while they were trying to get away. You could see lots of Negroes hanging from trees in Sabine bottom right after freedom.”
8. The year after Granger’s announcement, the first official Juneteenth celebrations took place on June 19 in Texas. Besides holding prayer meetings and singing spirituals, people wore new clothes to signify that they were free at last. They celebrated with everything that was red including a strawberry drink to symbolize the blood that was shed by the slaves. In a few years, Black people in other states started celebrating the day as well, and it became an annual tradition.
9. Following Granger’s announcement, former slaves in Texas also soon organized and bought lands as “emancipation grounds” for the annual Juneteenth celebrations. For instance, in the 1870s, some former slaves pooled $800 together through local churches to buy ten acres of land and create Emancipation Park to serve as the site for Juneteenth celebrations in Houston. Emancipation Park in Austin and Emancipation Park in Mexia (now Booker T. Washington Park) were created to host Juneteenth events.
10. In 1980 “Emancipation Day in Texas” became a legal state holiday in honor of Juneteenth. Today, many states are yet to adopt Juneteenth as a paid public holiday two years after it was signed into law as a federal holiday. While all 50 states have at some point commemorated or observed Juneteenth, 25 states have yet to adopt Juneteenth as a paid public holiday, according to the Congressional Research Service.
Juneteenth celebrations across the country today will include prayer and religious services, family gatherings, picnics, festivals with music and food including strawberry drinks, and educational programs.