What Is Juneteenth? Here's What You Need to Know About the Holiday

·2-min read
Photo credit: MoMo Productions
Photo credit: MoMo Productions

June 19, also known as Juneteenth, Emancipation Day, and Juneteenth Independence Day, is a holiday commemorating the end of slavery in the United States. But do you know the history behind Juneteenth? Read on to learn more about this fascinating and important day in U.S. history.

The History of Juneteenth

The Emancipation Proclamation was issued by President Abraham Lincoln and became official on January 1, 1863, declaring the more than three million enslaved people of Confederate states free. Yet it would take two and a half years for the order to reach Texas, where the announcement was read by Union soldiers led by Major General Gordon Granger in Galveston on June 19, 1865.

"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 hired laborer."

It’s said that the newly freed peoples “immediately began to celebrate with prayer, feasting, song, and dance.”

Why the two-year delay between when Lincoln issued the order and the news reaching Texas? There are a number of ideas: One says that a messenger was killed on his way to deliver the news; another says that the news was withheld to maintain the enslaved labor force that Texas plantations were reliant upon; and another idea surmises that the news was delayed purposely, to allow a final harvest to take place. But no matter the reason, slavery remained in Texas until the day now recognized and celebrated as Juneteenth.

Juneteenth festivities followed each year and were special gatherings, where Black communities shared meals together, donned new clothing (representing new freedoms), and sang and prayed. For years, these celebrations were highly attended, until economic factors, cultural reasons, and racism reduced education about and knowledge of the holiday. The holiday would begin to see a resurgence with the civil rights movement of the sixties, when student demonstrators wore Juneteenth buttons.

Black Texas legislator Al Edwards’s efforts prevailed in 1980, and Juneteenth was declared a state holiday, the first official state recognition of the day. Almost every state in the union has now officially recognized the holiday. Hawaii just passed legislation recognizing the date in 2021 (the legislation is awaiting the signature of the governor before becoming law), leaving South Dakota as the only state in the Union that has not declared Juneteenth a holiday.

You can find out more about Juneteenth from the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation, which campaigns in support of declaring Juneteenth a nationally observed holiday, and find out when your state declared it a holiday here.

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