Juneteenth is 155 years old and is celebrated on the 19th of June, hence the name June(nine)teeth. This day commemorates the emancipation of African-Americans from slavery in the U.S.
On June 19th
1865, Major General Gordon Granger of the Union Army landed in Galveston, Texas and informed slaves that the Civil War had ended and that slavery would be abolished.
Granger and approx. 2,000 Union soldiers were there to enforce President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, which had actually gone into effect two years earlier, on January 1, 1863. However Lincoln himself had been assassinated a few months earlier, in April 1865.
Over 250,000 slaves in Texas and were shocked to learn that they had been free for two years already,
according to the National Museum of African American History & Culture. Image via Getty Images
On June 19, Granger publicly read
General Order No. 3, which stated: “The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free.”
Today, there are many accounts of why it took so long for the news of slavery’s abolition to reach Texas. One story claimed that a messenger bearing the news
was murdered on his way there. However, many historians note that Texas remained a Confederate state until 1865, when Robert E. Lee finally surrendered to the Union Army, and the state would therefore not have enforced Lincoln’s proclamation until the Union took control.
Historians also report that many slave owners in Texas intentionally withheld the information about the Emancipation Proclamation from slaves before 1865 in order to keep their labor force intact.
Regardless, Granger’s arrival and the news that slavery had been abolished by the federal government launched a widespread of celebrations across the state.
In the book, “
Lone Star Pasts: Memory and History in Texas,” a former slave named Felix Haywood recalled the first celebrations on June 19, 1865: “We was all walkin’ on golden clouds….Everybody went wild…We was free. Just like that we was free.” Image via nmaahc.com
Without hearing his voice, we can just imagine how happy he was.
Simply put, Juneteenth is “the oldest nationally celebrated commemoration of the ending of slavery in the United States,” according to
Juneteenth.com. Unfortunately, it’s still not regarded as a national public holiday because many people still don’t know about it.
Juneteenth has always been both a day of remembrance and an opportunity for African-Americans to honor their history and celebrate Black culture.
Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., an African-American historian and professor wrote that over generations, Juneteenth became: “an occasion for gathering lost family members, measuring progress against freedom and inculcating rising generations with the values of self-improvement and racial uplift. This was accomplished through readings of the Emancipation Proclamation, religious sermons and spirituals, the preservation of slave food delicacies, as well as the incorporation of new games and traditions, from baseball to rodeos and, later, stock car races and overhead flights.”
How the celebration evolved and spread
In 1866, the slaves that were freed marked 19 June with anniversary celebrations that included prayer services and church gatherings in the Black community.
Over a few years, former slaves and their families continued celebrating their freedom with annual Juneteenth celebrations that also featured former slaves delivering inspirational speeches and reading from the Emancipation Proclamation. It marked a day for “grass-roots celebration highlighted by joyous singing, pig roasts, and rodeos,” according to Smithsonian Magazine.
Image via Getty Images
In a 2007 essay titled “Juneteenth: Emancipation and Memory,” Elizabeth Hayes Turner wrote about former slaves and their descendants who continued celebrating the Juneteenth for generations after 1865.
A descendant of slaves
recounted in that essay how Juneteenth celebrations sometimes included homemade pyrotechnics: ”‘My daddy told me that they whooped and hollered and bored holes in trees with augers and stopped it up with gun powder and light and that would be their blast for the celebration.’”
In 1872, a group of former Texas slaves collected more than $800 to buy 10 acres of open land to use for annual Juneteenth celebrations. They named it ‘Emancipation Park’, and it remains the
oldest public park in the state. As newly-freed Texas slaves began resettling across the country, as part of The Great Migration of former slaves, the tradition of Juneteenth celebrations also spread to new locals across the South and the rest of the U.S. over the next century.