Juneteenth: What is the historically important day and how did it start?

Thousands of enslaved people in Texas were ordered free two years after Emancipation Proclamation

Alex Woodward
New York
Thursday 17 June 2021 22:11
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Members of a parade perform during the 48th Annual Juneteenth Day Festival in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
Members of a parade perform during the 48th Annual Juneteenth Day Festival in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Celebrated annually on 19 June across the US, Juneteenth commemorates the announcement of the abolition of slavery in Texas and the nation’s “second” Independence Day.

The day now more widely represents the emancipation of enslaved African Americans across the US following the Civil War and its violent aftermath, and is the oldest nationally recognised commemoration of slavery’s end.

Here’s a brief history of Juneteenth and how it’s recognised today.

What happened?

On 19 June 1865, roughly 2,000 Union Army soldiers landed at Galveston, Texas, with news that enslaved people were now free.

In his order, Union Army Maj Gen Gordon Granger announced that “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 labour,” he continued.

But the announcement arrived more than two years following then-president Abraham Lincoln‘s Emancipation Proclamation, which signalled the end of slavery in the US but did not end the enslavement of all people in the nation at the time, contrary to its legacy and evocative language.

Why was there a delay?

Although the proclamation was issued on 1 September 1862, it didn’t go into effect until 1 January 1863. The war raged on for more than two more years.

The 13th Amendment to the US Constitution, which formally abolished slavery in the US, wasn’t passed by Congress until 31 January 1865. It was ratified later that year.

Meanwhile, roughly 200,000 Black men had enlisted among the Union ranks in the months before Confederate General Robert E Lee surrendered at Appomattox, Virginia on 9 April.

What was left of local Confederate armies and militia men held out in uprisings as slavers in the southern states migrated west to the Confederacy stronghold of Texas, along with thousands of enslaved people they had taken with them.

For the more than 250,000 enslaved people in Texas upon the Union Army’s arrival, General Granger’s order didn’t instantly release them from their chains; many slavers suppressed the news to the people they enslaved.

The general’s order continues: “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.”

Slavery’s formal end ushered in a decade of Reconstruction, which sought the continued emancipation of Black Americans and inclusion of the secessionist states into the US amid white supremacist paramilitary terror and a devastated post-war economy.

While the 13th Amendment prohibited the enslavement of Americans, it exempted slavery for those convicted of a crime. “Black codes” in economically devastated southern states subjected harsh penalties for newly freed Black Americans for crimes like loitering or breaking curfew, ensuring they would remain in chains for decades to follow.

The practice of “convict leasing” prisoners for labour to build railways and mines, among other private construction projects, became ”slavery by another name” that is echoed in today’s mass incarceration that disproportionately impacts Black Americans.

Why is it called Juneteenth?

The word is a portmanteau of “June” and “nineteenth”.

How is it celebrated?

Parades, festivals, concerts, family gatherings, church services and other community events are hosted across the US, but Juneteenth remains an unofficial national holiday. It is not celebrated on the federal level, whereas the Fourth of July – which marks the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776 – is recognised nationwide just a few weeks later.

In his “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” address in 1852, abolitionist Frederick Douglass noted the nation’s hypocrisy of celebrating Independence Day while imposing a brutal regime of slavery.

Juneteenth was not formally recognised in Texas, where the order was delivered, until 1979. It was the first state to do so.

In memory of the historic event, 19 June is now observed in most states, though not all. Hawaii, North Dakota and South Dakota do not recognise it as a state holiday.

How has momentum changed in the last year?

Following an international uprising against police violence and systemic racism after the murder of George Floyd in 2020, the holiday has gained larger attention outside African American communities, as pressure builds on federal, state and local governments to recognise the nation’s legacy of racism.

Donald Trump was shamed by his opponents for choosing to host his first campaign rally since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic on Juneteenth in Tulsa, Oklahoma, three weeks after the city recognised the anniversary of a two-day massacre of Black residents by a white mob in 1921. The former president then moved the rally to the following day.

A number of large companies also have added the holiday to their company holidays. Nike, National Football League and Twitter now provide a paid day off to their employees for Juneteenth.

New York City also now recognises the day as a school and public holiday, and city employees in Portland, Oregon also are provided a paid holiday.

On the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa race massacre, Oregon’s state senate passed legislation to create state holiday for Juneteenth.

Opal Lee, a 94-year-old activist from Texas, has led a national campaign for federal recognition of the holiday by walking from Texas to Washington DC every year.

When will it be a federal holiday?

On 17 June 2021, Joe Biden signed into law a measure creating the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act. It is the nation’s 11th federal holiday.

In Congress, Democratic US Rep Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas has led recent efforts to make Juneteenth a national holiday, adding to the list for the first time since the addition of Martin Luther King Jr Day in 1983.

On 13 June, the US Senate unanimously approved the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act, establishing 19 June as a legal public holiday.

Republican Senator Ron Johnson, who blocked its passage in 2020, lifted his opposition in 2021.

The measure received overwhelming bipartisan support in the House of Representatives on 16 June, though 14 Republicans voted against it.

As a federal holiday, federal employees will receive a paid day off on 19 June, or on the nearest Friday or Monday.

It joins a list of federal holidays that includes New Year’s Day, MLK Jr Day, Washington’s Birthday, Memorial Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, Columbus Day, Veterans Day, Thanksgiving and Christmas.

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