Celebrated annually on June 19th, Juneteenth lauds the end of slavery in the United States. On June 19, 1865, Union Army Major General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, where he announced that the Civil War was over. The slaves were officially free.
Thirty months earlier, President Abraham Lincoln had issued his Emancipation Proclamation, which took effect on New Year’s Day of 1863. But the Emancipation Proclamation had not been enforced in Texas.
In April 1865, when Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox, the Union Army began enforcing the anti-slavery ruling across the southern states. By June, they had arrived in Texas. At the time, Texas landowners still owned some 250,000 African slaves.
“The Slaves Are Freed!”
General Granger’s Juneteenth announcement included General Order Number Three, which read as follows:
“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.”
The Texas crowd had mixed reactions. Slaves rejoiced, while masters recoiled. Some slaves and masters redefined their employment relationships. Other slaves soon relocated northwards to seek gainful work and obtain property.
The Origins of Juneteenth
Henceforth, the date was marked as “Juneteenth.”
The Juneteenth holiday began as a time of regathering to recount the liberation milestone, to pray with thanksgiving, and to celebrate freedom with family and friends. Many freed slaves and their descendants returned to Galveston annually for the occasion.
The earliest Juneteenth celebrations were held on church grounds or private property, usually in backwoods country areas. Eventually, however, private lands were donated for the annual festivities, primarily by wealthy African-Americans. Emancipation Park in Houston, Texas, is perhaps the most famous such spot. (As additional sites were earmarked, most cities named them Emancipation Parks as well.)
Eventually, Juneteenth celebrations cropped up in Louisiana, Oklahoma, and other states.
Over the years, a variety of Juneteenth traditions have evolved. Groups participate in picnics, barbecues, sports events, rodeos, parades, fishing tournaments, music and dancing, and more.
Usually, Juneteenth gatherings assemble for a motivational speaker and a prayer meeting. Of course, a bounty of festive foods are essential to the day, with a variety of meats (chicken, ribs, lamb, pork, and beef), fresh fruits, delectable desserts, and the traditional Juneteenth strawberry sodas. Each family attending usually brings a dish or two.
Recalling the first Juneteenth, celebrants may toss their old clothing into creeks and rivers and adorn themselves with new apparel. This is reminiscent of the freed slaves shedding their torn rags and dressing in fancy clothes from their former masters’ estates.
During and after the Depression Era, Juneteenth celebrations waned somewhat, but they were rejuvenated during the Civil Rights movement days of the 1950s and 1960s. Since then, Juneteenth has been marked enthusiastically.
In 1968, Rev. Ralph Abernathy, a civil rights activist, led a multi-racial, multi-creed march on Washington, DC, the nation’s capitol. After this, Juneteenth festivities became major events in Milwaukee, Minneapolis, and other northern cities.
Juneteenth Becomes Official
In 1980, Juneteenth became an official state holiday, when Texas Governor William P. Clements, Jr., signed a bill from Al Edwards, an African-American Democrat from Houston, who was then serving in the Texas state legislature. Even today, Texas is the only state to grant employees the day off from work for celebrating Juneteenth.
In recent decades, The Henry Ford Museum, the Smithsonian Institution, and other organizations have promoted and sponsored Juneteenth events on a national scale.