Juneteenth, which combines the words June and nineteenth, is an unofficial national holiday marking the day Major General Gordon Granger of the Union army read federal orders in the city of Galveston, Texas on June 19, 1865. The proclamation stated that all slaves in Texas were now free. Readers who know their history also know that this official proclamation came two and a half years after President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, which became official on Jan. 1, 1863.
Why Did it Take So Long for Texas to Free Enslaved People?
News certainly did not travel instantaneously in the 1860s. Still, the state of Texas waited considerably longer than other slave-holding states to recognize the emancipation of slaves. Multiple possible explanations exist for deferring the news of freedom. Some argue that a messenger on his way to Texas with the news was murdered. Others believe Texans purposely withheld the information in order to maintain plantation labor forces and/or to keep enslaved people working for one last cotton harvest.
Whatever the reason, Texas was the last state in which enslaved people officially gained their freedom. “Juneteenth highlights the fact that freedom was not some switch that instantly flipped from off to on,” says Cameron Blevins, PhD, Associate Clinical Teaching Professor in the History Department who teaches a course on Civil War and Reconstruction. “Abraham Lincoln didn’t snap his fingers and, poof, slavery’s abolished. It took two more years of war, hundreds of thousands of casualties, the passage of the 13th Amendment, and, most importantly, the struggle of enslaved people themselves.”
Within one year, African Americans began celebrating Juneteenth. According to a PBS article written by scholar-historian Henry Louis Gates, Jr., “In one of the most inspiring grassroots efforts of the post-Civil War period, they [freed slaves] transformed June 19 from a day of unheeded military orders into their own annual rite.”
Juneteenth—also known as Freedom Day, Jubilee Day, and Liberation Day—is an official holiday in 49 states and the District of Columbia (only Hawaii doesn’t recognize Juneteenth). Many African Americans participate in Juneteenth celebrations, which include parades, picnics, rodeos, street fairs, family reunions, park parties, cookouts, and music festivals. The public aspect of Juneteenth is particularly important because in the aftermath of the Civil War southern states passed laws trying to institute “slavery by a different name,” including laws against Black people gathering in large groups.
In fact, the General Orders, Number 3 that was read in Texas on June 19, 1865 included these caveats: “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.” Blevins notes, “The Confederacy may have been defeated, but that didn’t mean the struggle for freedom was over. There was a brief window known as Reconstruction in which the nation actively worked to safeguard the rights of formerly enslaved people through things like the 14th and 15th amendments. But by the middle of the 1870s, a decade after the first Juneteenth, many white Americans had abandoned that project. From the rise of Jim Crow segregation through mass incarceration and police brutality today, Black Americans have been fighting that struggle for freedom ever since.”
Knowledge of Juneteenth varies widely in the U.S., and some people are not aware of what the holiday marks. Philip Joseph, PhD, chair of the English Department who teaches American literature and African American literature, remarks on this. “It tells you something about what we do and don’t celebrate and memorialize in this country that as a white kid in the northeast, I really didn’t know about Juneteenth until I came across Ralph Ellison’s unfinished novel of that name as a graduate student,” he said.
Black Lives Matter Movement
Professor Joseph thinks Juneteenth is a fitting name, precisely because “the name suggests a longer stretch of time.” Emancipation did not happen in one day: it was a process. Joseph points out that Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, which was followed by the Galveston announcement in 1865. Eleven years later, the Union Army left the South, “abandoning the ex-slaves to Jim Crow abuse and tyranny.”
Racial injustice has continued in both direct and covert ways, but Joseph hopes the Black Lives Matter movement will bring lasting change: “Hopefully, the expression of anger and determination of the Black Lives Matter protests will make a difference in the long, exhausting stretch of emancipation that Juneteenth is.”
“Juneteenth is a holiday for celebrating not just the end of slavery, but the persistence of African Americans in trying to make that promise of freedom mean something,” he said.