What is Juneteenth?

06/16/2021 6:14 PM | Amy Carter (Administrator)

(written by Alisha Juran and CLI)

“All persons held as slaves are and henceforward shall be free.”

While slavery ended with these words written by Abraham Lincoln during his famous Emancipation Proclamation, slaves living in Texas would not experience freedom until over two years later.

Juneteenth’s origin dates back to Galveston, Texas in the summer of 1865. On June 19th, Union General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston to tell enslaved African Americans that they were free, the civil war was over, and that President Lincoln had ended slavery. Juneteenth marks the celebration of the emancipation from slavery where every slave could finally be free.

The Emancipation Proclamation did not free enslaved people right away. They had to rely on union soldiers to travel from town to town and make sure slave owners were not violating the law and holding slave’s captive, contrary to the very essence of the Emancipation Proclamation. There were not enough union soldiers in Texas to enforce the freeing of enslaved peoples and because of this, during the war, many slave owners sought refuge in Texas. The slave owners attempted to evade the Emancipation Proclamation at every turn. They believed that the lack of union presence in Texas and lack of battles would allow them to disregard the President’s Proclamation and continue to illegally enslave.

When President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in January of 1863, it only applied to enslaved people under the confederacy, not bordering states that stayed loyal to the union. Four states in particular, Maryland, Missouri, Kentucky, and Delaware, had not seceded from the union and were therefore exempt from the proclamation.  The Emancipation Proclamation was not a grand speech given by the president and seen by all, instead it was printed and disseminated in slave-owning states slowing the spread of information to slaves in lower parts of the south, including Texas. Even though slave owners knew of the Emancipation Proclamation, the fall of the confederacy, and the end of the war, many kept this vital information from their slaves.

The first formal celebration of Juneteenth did not take place until the summer of 1866. Freedmen gathered in Texas with their families to celebrate with music, food, and prayer. As Black people migrated to other parts of the country, the celebration of Jubilee Day, Black Independence Day, or Freedom Day, now known as Juneteenth, was established.

Over the last several decades, states have widely celebrated Juneteenth as a holiday. In the wake of 2020, many corporations, law firms, and legal organizations are recognizing Juneteenth as a holiday where employees are given the day off.  This push began with Texas in 1980. Since then, 47 states and the District of Columbia have recognized Juneteenth as a holiday or day of observance.

Over the last two years, there has been a greater push for Juneteenth to become a national federal holiday. Congress members, large corporations, tech giants, and many activist groups have advocated for the federal government to finally recognize Juneteenth as the federal holiday it should become.  During the last several congressional sessions, bills have been introduced in Congress, but none had successfully passed the senate floor. Finally, on June 15th, 2021, the Senate unanimously passed a bill officially establishing Juneteenth as a federal holiday.  The bill will be sent to the House next and then to President Joe Biden to become law. This comes on the heels of the racial reckoning happening in America that has rightly brought more visibility to Juneteenth and the hardships Black people encounter at the hands of systemic racism and police brutality, in addition to the long-standing inequities in our country’s history.

The atrocities of slavery cannot be forgotten during the celebration and learning of Juneteenth. It is simply unacceptable that enslaved peoples were held captive for another two and half years after they were legally freed, or that slavery existed in the first place. Many slaves spoke about not being able to leave their plantations because they feared retaliation, not having anywhere to go, or being killed. While slavery was abolished with the ratification of the 13th amendment, these fears are still very real for so many Black Americans today. The momentum cannot be lost on recognizing how important Juneteenth is and what it represents:  immense suffering, the power of Black resiliency, and hope for a better future. Acknowledging Juneteenth as a federal holiday is a cause for celebration and another step in the right direction as the country attempts to right the wrong of systemic racism.

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1 Alex Wong, “Emancipation Proclamation,” History.com Editors, January 25th, 2021, accessed June 10th, 2021, https://www.history.com/topics/american-civil-war/emancipation-proclamation

2 Henry Louis Gates, Jr., “What is Juneteenth?” PBS, accessed June 10th, 2021, https://www.pbs.org/wnet/african-americans-many-rivers-to-cross/history/what-is-juneteenth/

3 Congressional Research Services, “Juneteenth: Fact Sheet,” Congressional Research Service Report, June 3, 2020, accessed June 10th, 2021, https://fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R44865.pdf

4 Elizabeth Nix, “What is Juneteenth?” History News, June 14th, 2021, accessed, June 15th, 2021, https://www.history.com/news/what-is-juneteenth

5 Dr. Kimberly Kutz Elliot, “The Emancipation Proclamation,” Khan Academy, accessed June 10th, 2021, https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/us-history/civil-war-era/slavery-and-the-civil-war/a/the-emancipation-proclamation

6 Congressional Research Service Report, 1.

7 Doug Criss, “All but four US states celebrate Juneteenth as a holiday,” CNN, June 19th, 2019, accessed June 10th, 2021, https://www.cnn.com/2019/06/19/us/juneteenth-state-holidays-trnd/index.html

8 Geoff Whitmore, “What is Juneteenth? And What Cities Are Having Events?” Forbes, June 18th, 2020, accessed June 10th, 2021, https://www.forbes.com/sites/geoffwhitmore/2020/06/18/what-is-juneteenth-and-what-cities-are-having-events/?sh=11b1a2a85122

9 Congressional Research Service Report, 3.

10 Igor Bobic, “Senate Passes Bill Establishing Juneteenth As A National Holiday,” HuffPost, June 15th 2021, accessed June 15th, 2021, https://www.huffpost.com/entry/senate-passes-juneteenth-national-holiday_n_60c915dde4b09ba204a9d24b


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