Juneteenth: Emancipation Day History

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Note: I first published this article in 2016. It has been updated for 2024.

June 19th is called Juneteenth. Until President Biden declared it a national holiday in 2021, it was not widely known or understood outside the black community.

Juneteenth is the oldest commemoration in the United States celebrating of the end of slavery. It is not, as many think, the anniversary of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation by President Lincoln. That was January 1, 1863.

HISTORY OF JUNETEENTH

Word of emancipation marking the end of slavery was slow to reach parts of the U.S. not deeply embroiled in the Civil War. In fact, it wasn’t until 1865 that word reached Texas. Major General Gordon Granger and his regiment of Union soldiers landed at Galveston, Texas, on June 19th with news that the Civil War had ended and that all blacks were free.

If you do the math, you’ll find that Major General Granger brought the news of freedom to Texas a full two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed. Reasons for the long delay vary from deliberate and intentional to accidental and a result of poor communication.

Granger read aloud General Order Number 3 which said, “The people of Texas are informed that in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired laborer.”

News of freedom from slavery was met with every emotion from shock to joy to disbelief and skepticism. Some freed black slaves stayed in Texas, while others left in search of family members or a better life in neighboring states.

MODERN JUNETEENTH CELEBRATIONS

Juneteenth celebrations waned over the years until the rise of the Civil Rights movement a century later. After the Poor Peoples March to Washington, DC in 1968, many blacks went back to their communities and initiated Juneteenth celebrations.

Juneteenth became an official Texas state holiday in 1980 largely through the efforts of state legislator Al Edwards of Houston. This marked the first emancipation celebration that was granted official state recognition.

There’s even a Juneteenth flag. Originally created by Ben Haith in 1997, the present version was first flown in 2000. The red, white, and blue colors with the star symbol in the center represent freedom and the end of slavery.

Once largely an African American holiday, coordinators of modern Juneteenth celebrations seek to bring in all members of the local community for educational purposes. The holiday is often observed with speeches, cookouts, parades, and parties.

American history is complex. Recognizing the intricacies and nuances of our diverse shared histories, I believe, makes us a stronger nation. While so many people are trying to tear us apart and divide us into polarized groups that want to destroy each other, we should be embracing what we all have in common. We are all Americans.

God bless America.




Image from: en.wikipedia.org


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