Juneteenth is a day to reflect on both slavery and freedom – a day of sadness as well as purpose.
It is both a commemoration of the long, bitter night of slavery and oppression and a celebration of the prospect of a brighter morning to come.
On Juneteenth, we recall our incredible ability to heal, hope, and rise from our darkest days as a better, freer, and more just nation.
It is also a day to recognize the strength and endurance of Black Americans who have survived generations of injustice in America’s continued quest for equal justice, equal dignity, equal rights, and equal opportunity.
What is Juneteenth?
On January 1, 1863, President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, declaring that those who had been enslaved “shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free,” but the proclamation did not immediately apply in certain areas, including secessionist states like Texas, which had left the Union and joined the Confederacy during the Civil War.
It took another two years for the word to reach Texas.
The Civil War ended in April 1865, and two months later, on June 19, 1865, Union Army Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger issued General Order No. 3 in Galveston, Texas, declaring that “the people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free.”
Slavery was finally abolished nearly six months later, on December 6, 1865, when Congress adopted the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution.
The following year, freed slaves celebrated June 19th, beginning off the inaugural Juneteenth celebration.
Juneteenth is also known as Emancipation Day, Freedom Day, Juneteenth Independence Day, or Juneteenth National Freedom Day.
When is Juneteenth?
Juneteenth is an annual commemoration of a specific date – June 19, 1865, when many enslaved persons in Texas learned they were free.
Because Juneteenth this year comes on a Sunday, the federal holiday will be observed on Monday, June 20.
As a result, federal offices will be closed, and many Americans will be off work. If Juneteenth falls on a Saturday, the preceding Friday is a legal holiday.
The Juneteenth flag, designed by activist Ben Haith, symbolizes the abolition of slavery in the United States.
Why is it called Juneteenth?
Juneteenth is derived from the words “June” and “nineteenth,” the date on which Granger informed enslaved people in Texas that they were truly free.
On June 17, 2021, Opal Lee, known as the Grandmother of Juneteenth, speaks with President Joe Biden after he signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act into law.
How to Celebrate Juneteenth
Juneteenth has evolved from a national holiday to a worldwide celebration, with cookouts, festivals, marches, pageants, parades, picnics, rodeos, readings, and vigils taking place throughout the world.
Events honor African American culture, achievements, and food while also commemorating a watershed moment in American history.
Many institutions and private businesses have joined state governments in making Juneteenth an official holiday.
Following in the footsteps of organizations such as Nike and Twitter, the NFL designated Juneteenth a league holiday in 2020.
The First Juneteenth
“The people of Texas are thus informed that, pursuant to a proclamation issued by the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free.”
This involves perfect equality of personal rights and property rights between former owners and slaves, and the previously existing connection between them becomes that of employer and hired labor.
The freedmen are encouraged to remain silent in their current houses and to labor for pay.
They are informed that they would not be permitted to gather at military locations and will not be supported in idleness anywhere.”
—General Orders, Number 3; Galveston, Headquarters District of Texas, June 19, 1865
When Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger issued the following order, he had no clue that he was also setting the basis for a holiday, “Juneteenth” (“June” plus “nineteenth”), which is now the most popular yearly celebration of freedom from slavery in the United States.
After all, by the time Granger took charge of the Department of Texas, the Confederate capital of Richmond had fallen; the “Executive” to whom he alluded, President Lincoln, had died; and the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery, was well on its way to being ratified.
Granger, on the other hand, wasn’t just a few months late.
The Emancipation Proclamation had ended slavery in the Confederacy (at least on paper) two and a half years ago, and in the meantime, nearly 200,000 black men had enlisted in the battle.
So, niceties aside, wasn’t it literally everything over but the shouting?
It’s easy to believe in our age of instant communication, but as Granger and the 1,800 bluecoats under him quickly discovered, news travels slowly in Texas.
Whatever surrendered Gen. Robert E. Lee in Virginia, the Army of the Trans-Mississippi had held out until late May, and even after its formal surrender on June 2, a number of ex-rebels in the region turned to bushwhacking and plunder.
That wasn’t the only problem that beset the former Confederate states’ extreme western boundary.
Since the Union Army’s seizure of New Orleans in 1862, slave owners in Mississippi, Louisiana, and other eastern states had been fleeing to Texas.
According to historian Leon Litwack’s book Been in the Storm So Long: The Aftermath of Slavery, more than 150,000 slaves made the journey west in a rushed re-enactment of the original Middle Passage.
“It looked like everybody in the world was moving to Texas,” one former slave he quotes said.
When Texas surrendered and Granger issued his now-famous decree No. 3, most of the Lone Star State’s 250,000 slaves did not experience quick emancipation.
On plantations, masters had to determine when and how to communicate the news — or wait for a government representative to arrive — and it was not uncommon for them to postpone the announcement until after harvest.
Even in Galveston, the ex-Confederate mayor defied the Army by forcing liberated people back to work, as historian Elizabeth Hayes Turner explains in her thorough article “Juneteenth: Emancipation and Memory,” published in Lone Star Pasts: Memory and History in Texas.
Those who took action based on the report did so at their own risk.
Former slave Susan Merritt remembered in Litwack’s book, “‘You could see lots of niggers hangin’ to trees in Sabine bottom right after liberation, ’cause they cotch ’em swimmin’ ‘cross Sabine River and shoot ’em.”
According to Hayes Turner, in one extreme case, a freed slave called Katie Darling kept working for her mistress for another six years (she “‘whip me after the war jist like she did ‘fore,” Darling said).
It’s hardly a recipe for a party, which makes the story of Juneteenth all the more astonishing. Defying confusion and delay, panic and violence, the newly “freed” black men and women of Texas now had a date to rally around, thanks to the Freedmen’s Bureau (which had been delayed from arriving until September 1865). They changed June 19 from a day of unheeded military orders into their own yearly rite, “Juneteenth,” beginning one year later in 1866, in one of the most remarkable grassroots endeavors of the post-Civil War period.
“‘The way it was explained to me,'” one descendant to the tradition is quoted in Hayes Turner’s essay, “‘the 19th of June wasn’t the precise day the Negro was released.'”
But that was the day they were told they were free…
“And my father told me that they whooped and yelled and dug holes in trees with augers and plugged them up with [gun] powder and light, and that would be their blast for the celebration.”
While national black leaders debated the significance of marking other significant anniversaries, the freed people of Texas went about the business of celebrating their own version of Emancipation Day.
For them, Juneteenth was, from its earliest incarnations, as Hayes Turner and others have documented, a “useful” past for assembling lost family members, evaluating progress against freedom, and instilling values of self-improvement and racial uplift in rising generations.
Readings of the Emancipation Proclamation, religious sermons and spirituals, the preservation of slave food delicacies (always at the center: the almighty barbecue pit), and the incorporation of new games and traditions, ranging from baseball to rodeos and, later, stock car races and overhead flights, all contributed to this.
Year after year, Juneteenth was strengthened by the fight its committee members had to wage against the Jim Crow faithful of Texas, who united behind their version of history in the years following Reconstruction in an effort to exalt (and whitewash) past cruelties and losses.
When whites prevented blacks from utilizing their public spaces, blacks gathered around rivers and lakes, eventually raising enough money to purchase their own celebration sites, including Emancipation Park in Houston and Booker T. Washington Park in Mexia.
1900 Texas Juneteenth Day Celebration (Austin History Center, Austin Public Library)
When white leaders like Galveston’s Judge Lewis Fisher compared the black freedman (“Rastus”) to “a prairie colt turned into a feed horse [to eat] ignorantly of everything,” Juneteenth celebrants dressed in their finest clothes, however poor, trumpeting the universal concerns of citizenship and liberty, with Reconstruction-era hero-speakers and symbols like the Goddess of Liberty on floats and in living tableaux.
And even when Houston refused to close its banks on Memorial Day in 1919 (only to do so four days later on Jefferson Davis Day, honoring the former Confederate president), Juneteenth revelers continued to remember in order to project “identification with American ideals” in “a potent life-giving event… a joyous reaction to overt racist themes… a public counter-demonstration to Confederate glorification displays and a counter-memory to the valorization of the Lost Cause.”
The holiday’s cross-state migration boosted its prospects of survival — one individual, one family, one carload or train ticket at a time. “The people from Texas took Juneteenth Day to Los Angeles, Oakland, Seattle, and other places they traveled,” writes Isabel Wilkerson in her magnificent book, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration. The observance was evolving as it expanded. Turner adds that this was especially true in the 1920s, when the Consumer Age infiltrated black society with commercials for better Juneteenth getups and more lavish demonstrations of pomp and circumstance.
This did not mean that Juneteenth’s advances were unbroken.
Despite the best efforts of local committees, with each new slight, new segregation law, new textbook whitewashing, and brutal lynching in the South, African Americans felt increasingly disconnected from their history, to the point where, by the time World War II shook the nation, they could no longer faithfully celebrate freedom in a land that still considered them second-class citizens worthy of dying for their country but not worthy of being honored or treated equally.
As a result, the wartime Double V campaign was born.
Juneteenth would have faded from the calendar (at least outside of Texas) if it hadn’t been for another amazing turn of events during the same civil rights movement that exposed many of the country’s failings in race relations. It actually happened at the very end of the movement, two months after its most important leader was assassinated.
Martin Luther King Jr., as is well known, had planned a return to the site of his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington, this time to lead a Poor People’s March emphasizing persistent class inequities. Following his killing, it was up to others, including his best friend, the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, and his widow, Coretta Scott King, to carry out the plan.
When it became evident that the Poor People’s March was falling short of its objectives, the organizers decided to call it off on June 19, 1968, well aware that the first Juneteenth commemoration in Texas had occurred just over a century before.
“[T]hese delegates for the summer brought that notion of the [Juneteenth] celebration back to their individual communities,” William H. Wiggins Jr., a specialist of black folklore and cultural customs, noted in a 2009 interview with Smithsonian magazine. There was one in Milwaukee, for example.” Another one is in Minnesota. In effect, it was another massive black migration. Juneteenth, Wiggins continued, “has taken on a life of its own.”
In response to this new energy, Texas became the first state to declare Juneteenth an official holiday in 1979. (Intriguingly, the bill was enacted on June 7, the anniversary of Homer Plessy’s arrest on the East Louisiana line, as detailed in Plessy v Ferguson: Who Was Plessy?) According to Hayes Turner, Rep. Al Edwards of Houston, known as “the father of the Juneteenth holiday,” led the charge, framing it as a “spring of strength” for young people. (As a concession to Lost Cause supporters, Texas reiterated its commitment to commemorating Confederate Heroes Day on January 19.)
Since then, 41 more states and the District of Columbia, including Rhode Island earlier this year, have declared Juneteenth a state holiday or holiday observance.
“This is akin to what God directed Joshua to do as he led the Israelites into the Promised Land,” Al Edwards explained to Yahoo in 2007.
“A nationwide Juneteenth celebration, state by state, serves a comparable function for us.”
Every year, we must remember future generations that this event initiated a chain of events that define the difficulties and responsibilities of future generations one by one.
That is why we require this holiday.”
Clifford Robinson of New Orleans developed juneteenth.com in 1997 to track Edwards’ and others’ efforts around the world.
The Rev. Ronald Meyers formed and chairs the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation, which is dedicated to making Juneteenth a federal holiday on par with Flag and Patriot days.
(It should be noted that they are not advocating for Juneteenth to be a paid government holiday, as Columbus Day is.)
“We may have arrived at different times and in various ways,” Meyers said Time magazine in 2008, “but you can’t genuinely celebrate freedom in America by sticking to the Fourth of July.”
His organization’s activities can be followed at nationaljuneteenth.com.
Juneteenth is now a chance to not just rejoice but also to speak out.
The Root reported last year that the US Department of State used the anniversary to release its 2012 Trafficking in Persons Report, with then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton adding, “Today we are celebrating what’s termed ‘Juneteenth’… However, the abolition of legal slavery in the United States and other countries across the world has not resulted in the abolition of slavery.
Today, it is estimated that up to 27 million people worldwide are victims of modern slavery.”
As further evidence that Juneteenth is on the increase, Washington, D.C., will be abuzz this Wednesday, June 19, with the unveiling of a Frederick Douglass statue in the iconic U.S. Capitol Visitor Center, thanks to the efforts of D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton. (Douglass will be joined in the hall by three other African Americans: Rosa Parks, Sojourner Truth, and Martin Luther King Jr.) No doubt Douglass would be surprised that such an honor was not planned for Jan. 1 (the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation), but he would be pleased that the country is still finding ways to recognize “the causes, occurrences, and outcomes of the late revolt.”
Who made Juneteenth a holiday?
In June 2021, the Senate voted unanimously to make Juneteenth the 11th annual national holiday on the federal calendar, while the House of Representatives voted 415-14 to enact a similar legislation. Hours later, President Joe Biden signed it into law.
Who came up with the name Juneteenth?
(Cardinal numbers such as 8 represent amount.) However, the -teenth ending is stuck on the name of a month in this case. According to historian Annette Gordon-Reed, the word is exactly what it appears to be: a contraction of the month and day of General Granger’s declaration (June 19).
Is it OK to say Happy Juneteenth?
According to the website, “Happy Juneteenth Day” is an appropriate greeting for the event. The color red is also significant.
What are Juneteenth colors?
The official Juneteenth flag was red, white, and blue, indicating that all American slaves and their descendants were citizens of the United States.
Many in the black community, however, have accepted the Pan-African flag of red, black, and green.
The colors signify Africa and its people’s blood, soil, and prosperity.
Why is the end of slavery called Juneteenth?
In the United States, Juneteenth is a federal holiday honoring the emancipation of enslaved African Americans.
Juneteenth is the anniversary of Union Army General Gordon Granger issuing General Order No. 3 on June 19, 1865, proclaiming freedom for enslaved people in Texas.
Juneteenth is indeed a day to rejoice.
And the color red is always worn as the dress code.
According to James Beard Award winner Adrian Miller, author of Black Smoke: African Americans and the United States of Barbecue, the color red represents the bloodshed of enslaved ancestors as a result of the transatlantic slave trade.