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Juneteenth

Overview

  • On June 19, 1865, the last enslaved people in the South received word from the US Army of the Emancipation Proclamation, which ordered the abolition of slavery in the South.
  • Black people across the country celebrate Juneteenth (a portmanteau of the words “June” and “nineteenth”) to remember their history, celebrate their freedom, and renew the fight for their rights today.
  • In 2021, US Congress passed a bill making Juneteenth a federal holiday.

Freedom delayed

On September 22, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, which ordered the end of slavery in all the states that had joined the Confederacy.
Shows a three dimensional map of the United States. The Union states are indicated in dark blue and include: Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New York, Connecticut, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Kansas, Oregon, and California. The light blue states indicate the border states, which include Delaware, Maryland, West Virginia, Kentucky, and Missouri. Separated from the rest of the continental United States are the Confederate states in red, which include Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Texas.
The Emancipation Proclamation freed all enslaved people in the Confederacy, but it did not free enslaved people in the Border states. It would not be until the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment on December 6, 1865 that the government would officially abolish slavery, guaranteeing the freedom of Black people across the entire United States.
Despite the order, not all enslaved people received word of the proclamation or the implications it had for their freedom. We could point to a couple of reasons for this: the rural nature of the South isolated people from each other, making it difficult to spread news, and enslavers deliberately withheld the information from their enslaved people to keep them on as a labor force.
But on June 19, 1865, two months after General Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Courthouse, Major General Gordon Granger of the US Army’s Department of Texas spoke to the people of Galveston, Texas and delivered the following order:
“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.”start superscript, 1, end superscript

Why was news of the Emancipation Proclamation delayed?

There are a few theories as to why enslaved people in Texas did not hear that the president had ended slavery in the Confederate states for over two years. Some people theorize that the reason some enslavers did not pass on word that enslaved people were free was because they wanted to get their enslaved people to work through the cotton harvest. Some think someone murdered the messenger the US government sent to Texas to spread word about the Emancipation Proclamation before he could inform enslaved people. However, some historians point to the fact that Emancipation Proclamation only took practical effect in the South once the US Army was there to enforce the order.squared

The Scatter

Although Black people in Texas didn’t know about the Emancipation Proclamation or their freedom from captivity, many did not wait until US soldiers came to seek their freedom. During the Civil War, many enslaved people escaped their captors and tried to get to the US Army or northern states for freedom. Many still stayed behind out of fear for themselves or their families. When news spread throughout Texas that the US government freed them and would not return enslaved people to their captors if they escaped, newly freed Black people escaped in what they called “the Scatter.” Although Major General Granger’s order guaranteed Black people their freedom, he encouraged them to “remain quietly at their present homes, and work for wages.” Some listened to the order, but many did not and escaped their captors as soon as possible. Tempie Cummins describes her mother’s reaction to freedom below:
“When freedom was declared, master wouldn’t tell them, but mother, she heard him telling mistress that the slaves were free, but they didn’t know it, and he was not going to tell ‘em till he had made another crop or two. When mother heard that, she said she slipped out of the chimney corner and cracked her heels together four times and shouted, “I’s free, I’s free.” Then she ran to the field, against master’s will, and told all the other slaves, and they quit work.”cubed
They left to find family members who were sold to other enslavers across the country or to escape to the much friendlier North. Although the Emancipation Proclamation freed enslaved people in the Confederate States, the government did not officially ban slavery in the United States until six months later with the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment.

The significance of Juneteenth celebrations

“We was the happiest people in the world when we knowed we was free. We couldn’t realize it at first but how we did shout and cry for joy when we did realize it.”
-Annie Hawkins start superscript, 4, end superscript
In the years that followed, Black communities celebrated the nineteenth of June, also known as Juneteenth, around the country. Juneteenth is a holiday of jubilation in which Black communities remember their enduring fight for freedom and celebrate their culture and connection through their shared history. Surrounded by laughter, community, and song, these celebrations are meant to both remember the history of enslavement and to encourage Black people to continue to fight for their political rights.
In the first few decades of Juneteenth celebrations, people used the celebration to search for lost family members. Many Black people placed advertisements in local newspapers. For example, in the Chattanooga Daily Times, John M. Anderson placed the following advertisement:
Information Wanted. “A negro named John M. Anderson, who before the war was the property of Mason Anderson, of Lee county, Mississippi, is anxious to learn something of the whereabouts of his father, Richard Anderson, and his two sisters, Polly and Rachael, who he thinks, were sold and removed to the vicinity of Chattanooga or Huntsville. J.M. Anderson is now located at the last named city.” start superscript, 5, end superscript
In 1872, two Black church congregations bought ten acres of parkland in Houston’s Third Ward for eight hundred dollars and built Emancipation Park to host Juneteenth celebrations. The park still stands today, and in 2017, the government of Houston spent 33.6 million dollars renovating the park for continued Juneteenth celebrations today. start superscript, 6, end superscript

The legacy of Juneteenth today

There was a decline in Juneteenth activities in the early 1900s. As the writers of Juneteenth.com point out, traditional classroom textbooks of the early 1900s taught that slavery ended with Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and did not mention the continued enslavement of Black people in Texas for years afterward.start superscript, 7, end superscript Black people continued to face violence and oppression in the early 1900s, particularly with the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s.
Following the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, Juneteenth celebrations emerged again in cities around the country. In part, Juneteenth organizers wanted to remember their ancestors' struggle for freedom in the centuries before.
Speaker at the Fort Worth Juneteenth Celebration 2019, accompanied by two young volunteers holding up the Juneteenth flag. The Juneteenth flag includes a top dark blue layer and red bottom layer to mirror the colors used in the American flag. There is a white twelve-point star overlay over the two colored layers and a white five-pointed star in the center of the twelve-pointed star.
Speaker at the Fort Worth Juneteenth Celebration 2019, with two young volunteers holding up the Juneteenth Flag in the background. Photo taken by Jay Weenig, posted on Flickr Commons.
Texas became the first state to make Juneteenth a state holiday in 1980. US Congress passed a bill making Juneteenth a federal holiday in 2021.start superscript, 8, end superscript
Juneteenth celebrations occur all around the country. They serve as an opportunity not only to reflect on the oppression and subjugation of Black people for centuries, but to celebrate the progress experienced since that jubilant day in 1865 when the last people enslaved were told of their freedom. Sometimes these reflections point to how far the United States still needs to go as a nation in guaranteeing full equality.
What would you see if you attended a Juneteenth Celebration today? Well, it depends on where you live. In big cities like Houston, Minneapolis, and New York, you may see giant gatherings, floats coming down closed-off streets, and “Miss Juneteenth,” a Black pageant queen, making her way down in a car waving to people in view of the parade. Regardless of where you live, you’d hear local community members speak about the history of enslavement and hear community activists speak about the goals they’re working toward to improve the community.

Food for thought

  • How does knowing about Juneteenth change your understanding of enslavement during the Civil War?
  • Read Frederick Douglass’s speech, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” In particular, focus on this line, “This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.” What do you think Frederick Douglass would say about Juneteenth and its celebration?

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