June 19, 1865 – Juneteenth Day

Juneteenth Day is a holiday commemorating the ending of slavery in the United States, and is the oldest known celebration commemorating the ending of slavery in the country. On June 19th, 1865, Union soldiers led by Major General Gordon Granger came to Galveston, Texas and announced the end of the Civil War and freedom for black slaves. This is the first time that some slaves heard the news, and the first time it was delivered to all the people of Texas with the imprimatur of the Federal Government.

General Order No. 3

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 personal rights and rights of property, between former masters and slaves and the connection heretofore existing between them, becomes that between employer and hired labor. The Freedmen are advised to remain at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts; and they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.”

[Note that this was two and a half years after President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation – which had become official January 1, 1863. But it was not until the 13th Amendment was adopted in December 1865 that slavery was ended in all parts of the United States. Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, issued January 1, 1863, only applied to certain states, but included any states in rebellion, such as Texas, reading: “I do order and declare that all persons held as slaves within said designated States, and parts of States, are, and henceforward shall be free; and that the Executive government of the United States, including the military and naval authorities thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of said persons.” Loyal border states were not affected by the proclamation. The 13th Amendment, passed months after the war was over, provided that “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.”

There are several theories as to why it took so long for Texas African-Americans to get the message that they were free. A website for this holiday relates some of them, including a story of a messenger who was murdered on his way to Texas with the news of freedom. Another more likely theory is that the news was deliberately withheld by the enslavers to maintain the labor force on the plantations. A third was that federal troops actually waited for the slave owners to reap the benefits of one last cotton harvest before going to Texas to enforce the Emancipation Proclamation. In any event, conditions in Texas remained status quo until this day in history.

The celebration of June 19 as Emancipation Day spread from Texas to the neighboring states and north as blacks migrated from the South. The Juneteenth celebration was a time for reassuring each other, for praying and for gathering remaining family members. Juneteenth continued to be highly revered in Texas decades later, with many former slaves and descendants making an annual pilgrimage back to Galveston on this date.

On January 1, 1980, Juneteenth became an official state holiday in Texas through the efforts of Al Edwards, an African American state legislator. The successful passage of this bill marked Juneteenth as the first emancipation celebration granted official state recognition.

Presidential proclamations about Juneteenth Day are compiled here.

Today Juneteenth festivities celebrate African American freedom and achievement, while encouraging continuous self-development and respect for all cultures. It is a day, a week, and in some areas a month marked with celebrations, parades, picnics and family gatherings. To see what events are scheduled in your state, you can click here. The New York Times has an article showcasing the food traditions associated with the holiday, here.


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