Updated in 2021. Original post in 2017.
Also known as Freedom Day or Emancipation Day, Juneteenth (June 19) commemorates the announcement of the abolition of slavery in the U.S. State of Texas in 1865. The holiday originated in Galveston. For more than a century, the state of Texas was the primary home of Juneteenth celebrations, but over the years it became recognized as a state holiday in many states: Alaska, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Idaho, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.
This year, 2021, a bill proposed to make June 19 a national holiday. There was no debate in the Senate. The vote passed the House 415 to 14. June 17 President Biden signed it into law.
Though Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on September 22, 1862, with an effective date of January 1, 1863, it had minimal immediate effect on most slaves’ day-to-day lives, particularly in Texas, which was almost entirely under Confederate control. People did not know they were free, because the slave owners did not necessarily tell anyone. Texas was resistant to the Emancipation Proclamation, and though slavery was very prevalent in East Texas, it was not as common in the Western areas of Texas, particularly the Hill Country, where most German-Americans were opposed to slavery.
June 18 is the day Union General Gordon Granger and 2,000 federal troops arrived in Galveston, Texas, to take possession of the state and enforce the emancipation of its slaves. On June 19, 1865, legend has it while standing on the balcony of Galveston’s Ashton Villa, Granger read the contents of “General Order No. 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.
Former slaves in Galveston rejoiced in the streets with jubilant celebrations. Juneteenth celebrations began in Texas the following year. Across many parts of Texas, freed people pooled their funds to purchase land specifically for their communities’ increasingly large Juneteenth gatherings – including Houston’s Emancipation Park, Mexia’s Booker T. Washington Park, and Emancipation Park in Austin.
The lie that Blacks were born to be slaves was exposed. Race relations entered a new chapter. Sadly, angry Texans who had just lost a war resisted change. Dr. Annette Gordon-Reed (Harvard), author of On Juneteenth says some enslavers refused to release slaves, forcing them to continue to work without pay on pain of death. Some turned on the newly freed people. Jim Crow laws and the lynching era reinforced white power.
Nevertheless, schools were built and slowly change began to take shape. Indeed, Gordon-Reed’s own great-great-grandfather registered to vote in 1867. The road has not been smooth, but rather “stony” as the old hymn says, but the long arc of history bends toward justice, as Dr. King opined.
As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.