Most of us have heard of the Emancipation Proclamation signed by President Abraham Lincoln that marked the end of slavery on January 1, 1863. What many don’t know, however, is that the slaves that were freed were only in the states “then in rebellion against the United States” – meaning the 11 Confederate states involved in the Civil War. Many border states that were loyal to the Union, as well as states farther away from the war, continued to practice slavery to varying degrees. And, unfortunately, word of the end of the war and freedom for Confederate slaves was slow to travel to some regions of the country. That is where Juneteenth comes in.
What is Juneteenth?
Juneteenth is the name for the day in June of 1865 that 2,000 Union troops arrived in Galveston Bay, TX, to announce to more than 250,000 enslaved black people that they were free by executive decree. This was the last area of the Confederate States of America where slavery continued to exist, in large part because the state was far removed from the fighting of the Civil War and was able to avoid the enforcement of the Emancipation Proclamation. Though it took 2.5 years after the Proclamation’s signing and two months after Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union General Ulysses S. Grant in Virginia, freedom day for the Texas slaves came to be known as "Juneteenth.” On that day, General Gordon Granger read a synopsis of the Emancipation Proclamation and the last slaves of the Confederacy were set free.
Though this was the end of Confederate slavery, it wasn’t until the ratification of the 13th Amendment on December 6, 1865, eight months after Lincoln’s assassination, that slavery was officially abolished throughout the United States, including in Union states: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”
Following its enactment, the former Confederate states were required by Congress to ratify the 13th Amendment in order to regain representation in the federal government.
When is Juneteenth?
The exact date of liberation for Texas slaves was June 19, 1865. Originally known as Emancipation Day, the day was first celebrated in January 1866, when about 1,000 former slaves and their families gathered in Galveston for a peaceful remembrance and reading of the Emancipation Proclamation at one of the city's earliest African American chapels. Eventually, the name of the day changed to Juneteenth, which was created by combining the month with the date – June + nineteenth – more than 100 years ago.
Who Celebrates Juneteenth?
Texas was the first state to make Juneteenth a state holiday in 1980, followed by almost all other states and Washington, D.C., before it was made a federal holiday by President Joe Biden in 2021. Juneteenth was the nation's first new federal holiday since Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day was introduced in 1983.
Celebrated primarily by African Americans, early Juneteenth commemorations were often used to help newly-freed black men learn about their voting rights, which were gained with the 15th Amendment to the Constitution in 1870. Even today, Juneteenth is sometimes used for voter registration efforts, and in most recent years, as an opportunity to dialogue and draw attention to race-related events taking place in our country in real time. Still, the holiday most often involves celebrating with a variety of activities, often Texas style, such as rodeos, public readings, parades, community gatherings, festivals, silent walks, church services, singing, games, family barbecues, and more.
If you are not African American, you can still observe Juneteenth by doing things like educating yourself on the history of slavery and Juneteenth through books and movies, patronizing Black-owned restaurants and businesses, exploring Black art, participating in community celebrations, and visiting monuments and museums that highlight Black history.
Where is Juneteenth Celebrated?
Though Juneteenth is recognized nationwide, only recently has it garnered recognition and understanding as a holiday. Some states close state buildings and services for the day and provide paid time off for employees. Some companies also offer it as a paid holiday for their employees. Far beyond its origins in Texas, the celebration of Juneteenth has spread to almost every major city in the U.S., with most posting a schedule of Juneteenth activities on their city websites or in their local newspapers.
Why Is Juneteenth Celebrated?
As noted, Juneteenth has been observed since the declaration of freedom to Texas slaves on June 19, 1865, as a way of commemorating that significant event in their lives, and, more broadly, in the life of our country, as the moral wrong of slavery was finally abolished.
But it wasn’t until civil unrest during the summer of 2020 brought racial tensions back to the forefront that both chambers of Congress finally moved to pass the legislation that made Juneteenth a national holiday. "The celebration of Juneteenth gives people a chance to pause and think about the history behind what we are going through right now,1" said Kelly E. Navies, a museum specialist and oral historian with the National Museum of African American History and Culture. "It gives people the opportunity to ask themselves what are the root causes to the racial conflicts we are experiencing."
A Little-Known Fact
While U.S. slavery officially ended with the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, it is little known that slaves continued to be held by a group not under the direct jurisdiction of the federal government – Native Americans – many who had formerly been enslaved themselves. As outlined in the Smithsonian Magazine2, five tribes - Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek and Seminole –sided with the Confederacy during the Civil War and held Black slaves of their own. The reasons and realities were complicated and created an inconvenient truth. However, not until the Treaties of 1866 were ratified in July of that year did slavery in America fully come to an end.
History in the Making
History is rarely neat and tidy. That has been true since the beginning of time, and it remains true today. But we can and should learn from it. So instead of being a passive spectator of the history that is being made right now, we encourage you to become informed; conduct research; explore different perspectives; learn about our country’s history; engage in the conversation; and be prepared for what comes next. Ottawa University’s fully online history degree is a great place to start! Contact us today.