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.
The holiday does not mark one day but rather honors a process of racial equality that is still ongoing. Admissions Counselor Deneshia Hearon, chair of CU Denver’s Black Faculty & Staff Affinity Group (BFSA), said, “Juneteenth is not just the end of slavery, but the acknowledgement of freedom.” CU Denver Vice Chancellor for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Antonio Farias sees Juneteenth as an opportunity to reexamine our nation’s history. “Juneteenth is once again an opportunity for us as a nation to deepen our understanding of the horror embedded in our sanitized history. If we refuse to confront our past—the genocidal depopulation of Native American lands and subsequent repopulation with enslaved Africans—we will continue to tear at the fabric of our already fragile democracy,” he said.
Why Did it Take so Long for Texas to Free Slaves?
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—a fact that is not well-known. “The observance is not widely known because Juneteenth is not celebrated in most of the U.S. and is only vaguely covered in history courses,” Hearon said. “When I attended high school, the only courses offered were African American Literature and African American History. I never knew Juneteenth was considered a holiday because we were never given the day off in observance.”
CU Chief Diversity Officer Theodosia S. Cook discussed why Juneteenth, and the knowledge of its history, matters. “Juneteenth symbolizes freedom, but it also acknowledges that the United States of America was built upon the denial of freedom for Black people,” she said.
“In today’s society, we see an immense denial of this history and the cruel irony that the Emancipation Proclamation was largely symbolic and not the end of chattel slavery in the U.S.,” Cook said. “We know that laws in our country are being enacted to remove the facts of this history from our school systems. We know that brilliant scholars are being denied tenure because of their factual research. As a Black woman in America with ancestors who endured chattel slavery in Latin America, being married to a Black partner with ancestors from Mississippi who endured chattel slavery in the Deep South, who are now raising Black children in this nation, Juneteenth represents hope for a day when true freedom comes. I do truly look forward to a day of Freedom, Jubilee, and Liberation—when the history of our ancestors and this nation are embraced and not denied.”
African Americans began celebrating Juneteenth within one year of the Galveston proclamation. 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 is acknowledged by 47 states and the District of Columbia, but it is not a federal holiday. Many African Americans participate in Juneteenth celebrations, which include parades, rodeos, street fairs, family reunions, park parties, cookouts, and music festivals.
Hearon explained the importance of the Juneteenth celebrations: “Growing up in Denver, Juneteenth in Five Points was the highlight of each summer because that’s when the Black community would come together to celebrate our emancipation with a street fair, good food, live entertainment, and a parade,” she said. “I looked forward to participating in this event each year. It was a historical event remembering the tears, sweat, labor, and pain experienced by our ancestors. The Juneteenth celebration made me realize how these experiences unified us and brought us closer together as a race.”
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.”
Farias stressed that Juneteenth celebrates Black resiliency: “The Middle Passage attempted to strip the humanity, culture, religion, and life of a vast diversity of African nations and states and yet, the vibrancy of Black culture during Juneteenth remains a testament to the resiliency, creativity, and joy of a people, our brothers and sisters on a relentless path toward true justice.”
Juneteenth is particularly important because it comes after years of protests against police brutality. The Black Lives Matter movement may have shed light on the importance of Black history, because in June 2021, a bill was proposed to make Juneteenth a federal holiday (one of the bill’s authors was Vice President Kamala Harris). “Recently, there has been a renewed effort to make Juneteenth a national paid holiday,” Hearon said. “It is important to not lose momentum or be distracted.”
Racial injustice has continued in both direct and covert ways since the Union Army’s proclamation finally forced Texas to free its enslaved people. Hearon pointed out that Black citizens continue to fight for equality. “I often wonder how far we’ve really advanced and what progress has been made, with the recent and continuous events of police brutality and structural racism against African Americans still occurring in our society,” she said.
Acknowledging Juneteenth as historical fact and teaching the event in schools is a start, but Hearon and the BFSA hope for more. “When will corporate leaders look different and policies be created in this country to protect us and our rights? Finally, when justice arrives, our voices will be heard, and we can be valued as people. Only then will we overcome and be free.”