The History Behind the African American Holiday of Juneteenth

2 months ago

The History Behind the African American Holiday of Juneteenth

Juneteenth, a special day, is when we remember something important in American history. It's a day when we think about how everyone in the United States should be free. We also talk about the idea of "race" and how it has caused unfair treatment for Black Americans and some Latinos.


What Exactly Is Juneteenth?

Juneteenth is sometimes called "Emancipation Day" or "Freedom Day." It's a day to remember when slavery ended in the United States. Even though President Abraham Lincoln said slavery should end on January 1, 1863, it took a while for everyone to know they were free.

More than two years later, on June 19, 1865, a Union General named Gordon Granger said that all enslaved people in Galveston, Texas, were free. People in Texas started to celebrate this day every June 19th with prayers, reading the Emancipation Proclamation, stories, food, dances, and red soda. Some people say the red soda reminds them of the suffering during slavery, while others connect it to special drinks in West Africa.

Even though slavery ended, things didn't become equal for everyone. It took almost 90 more years for the Civil Rights Movement to start fixing the problems of segregation. Juneteenth became more important during those years. In 1980, Texas made Juneteenth a state holiday, and on June 17, 2021, President Joe Biden made it the eleventh federal holiday in the United States.


The Beginning of Juneteenth

People sometimes call the Civil War the "Second American Revolution." It started in 1861 because northern and southern states disagreed about slavery and who had the most power. After a year, the U.S. Congress passed a law in 1862 that said Union troops could take away things from the Confederates, including enslaved people.

The law also let Black people join the Union army. A few months later, on January 1, 1863, President Lincoln said that all enslaved people should be free. That was the Emancipation Proclamation, and it said, "all persons held as slaves ... are, and henceforth, shall be free."

The proclamation that was made by the government legally set free many enslaved people in the Confederacy. However, it didn't apply to those in the Union-loyal border states of Delaware, Maryland, Missouri, and Kentucky. These states had sympathy for the Confederacy and could have left the Union, so President Lincoln didn't include them in the proclamation to stop this from happening.

About a year later, in April 1864, the Senate tried to close this gap by passing the 13th Amendment, which made slavery and involuntary servitude illegal in all states, both Union and Confederate. But it took until December 1865 for the amendment to be officially accepted. In simple terms, it took two years for enslaved people to be legally freed.

During the American Civil War, there was a group of formerly enslaved people who worked as laborers and servants with the 13th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment around 1862.

Not to forget, the amendment was ratified after the Civil War had already ended, in April 1865, when Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox, Virginia. Enslaved people in Texas didn't find out about their freedom until three months later. On June 19, 1865, Major General Gordon Granger of the Union army arrived in Galveston and issued General Order No. 3, which confirmed the Union army's authority over Texas. The order said:

"The people of Texas are told that, according to a proclamation from the President of the United States, 'all slaves are free.' This means that former masters and slaves now have the same personal rights and property rights, and their relationship is like that between an employer and a hired worker. The freedmen are advised to stay where they are and work for wages. They are also told that they can't gather at military posts and won't be supported if they choose not to work."

However, even under Order No. 3, as historian Henry Louis Gates Jr. pointed out, freedom didn't immediately come for the 250,000 enslaved people in Texas. "On plantations, the masters had to decide when and how to tell the news—or wait for a government agent to arrive—and sometimes they delayed it until after the harvest," he wrote.

For many enslaved people, emancipation was a gradual process, the result of a century of efforts by abolitionists in both the North and the South. And even after gaining freedom, they were still seen as property primarily meant for labor and production.

The Present Context for Juneteenth

Nowdays, Juneteenth, also known as Emancipation Day, Jubilee Day, Juneteenth National Freedom Day, Juneteenth Independence Day, and Black Independence Day, has undergone various name changes over time. Despite its different titles, Juneteenth has often faced competition from other freedom-related holidays and remained relatively unknown to many Americans. This changed in 2020 when widespread protests for racial justice coincided with the day.

In 2020, many companies pledged to actively oppose racism and officially recognized Juneteenth as a company holiday. Additionally, several cities took steps to acknowledge Juneteenth at the municipal level.

For instance, Philadelphia, known for hosting one of the country's largest Juneteenth parades, issued an executive order designating Juneteenth as an official city holiday for that year. The mayor stated, "This recognition of Juneteenth reflects my administration's commitment to acknowledging our own role in perpetuating racial inequalities and our realization of the significant work that still needs to be done."


Why We Celebrate Juneteenth

In the United States, approximately one-quarter of Latinx individuals identify as Afro-Latinx, and their ancestors experienced enslavement both in the United States and Latin America.

Slavery as an economic and social institution began in Latin America even earlier than it did in the United States. European colonizers forcibly transported the first enslaved people of African origin to Latin America in the 16th century.

Haiti achieved the remarkable feat of abolishing slavery first, following a successful 13-year revolt against its French colonizers that began in 1793, ultimately establishing Haiti as the world's initial Black republic in 1804. Subsequently, each nation in the Americas officially abolished slavery, usually after gaining independence, during the latter half of the 19th century.

It's crucial to recognize that the United States was among the last nations in the Americas to abolish slavery, finally achieving this milestone in 1865. Throughout this period, many enslaved individuals were forcibly brought from the Caribbean and South America to the United States. During that era, the Black community was perceived as a single unified group, with no distinction made between Afro-Latinxs and African Americans.

People of African and Latin American descent have faced many of the same unfair treatments that African Americans have experienced in the United States. This special day, Juneteenth, is a national holiday that goes hand in hand with Independence Day. It marks the achievement of freedom for everyone in the country and gives us a chance to think about important social ideas like "race" that contribute to ongoing inequalities faced by many Latino people.


What Makes Juneteenth Special?

Juneteenth is a moment for everyone in the country to come together and learn about the history and contributions of Black people in the United States and Latin America. Let's discover and unite! Recognizing the violent history of the United States can help us find solutions to current and future issues and can empower communities with new stories. Below, you'll find a list to get started, with resources to expand your knowledge about the historical events tied to this national holiday and about Black culture in the United States and Latin America.


  • A Beautiful Mural Celebrating Juneteenth's Birthplace

The Juneteenth Legacy Project aims to highlight June 19th as a significant moment in U.S. history while also supporting Opal Lee, an activist and educator, in her efforts to make Juneteenth a national holiday. In 2021, this project transformed public spaces and revealed a large 5,000-square-foot art mural at the exact spot where General Order No. 3 was issued by General Gordon Granger in Galveston, Texas.

The mural, created by artist Reginald Adams, features historical figures like Estevanico (the first African to explore North America in the 1500s), Harriet Tubman, Abraham Lincoln, and Gen. Gordon Granger, all surrounded by local landmarks. Projects like this are crucial because they help share the story of America and, in the words of its creator, Reginald Adams, "they create new opportunities for conversations about social justice and racial fairness."


  • PBS Juneteenth Celebration

Juneteenth Jamboree is a local public television program presented by Austin PBS. It offers a fantastic collection of online episodes that delve into the history of the holiday and celebrate Black culture and art. PBS also provides the Black Culture Connection, a comprehensive selection of their programming related to the Black experience that is both enlightening and entertaining.


  • NPR – Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation

Listen to NPR's staff members as they read the Emancipation Proclamation in honor of June 19th, and follow along with the text provided.


  • Discover the National Museum of African American History and Culture Online

You can now see, download, and share pictures of things from the NMAAHC collection. They have given permission for people to use these pictures with a Creative Commons license. You can search for things by topic, when they were made, who made them, what they are, and where they are from.


  • The Wonderful Aretha Franklin in "Amazing Grace"

This amazing concert was filmed at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles in 1972. Aretha Franklin, who is one of a kind, sings songs like Clara Ward’s “How I Got Over” and John Newton’s “Amazing Grace” with her incredible voice. It's like a spiritual experience that makes people in the audience cry. It also reminds us how important gospel music is to the Black community in America.


  • "Homecoming: A Film by Beyoncé"

In this film from 2019, Beyoncé gives a stunning performance at the 2018 Coachella music festival. According to The New Yorker, this film teaches us a lot about how Black people express themselves. Variety also said it's like Beyoncé's way of celebrating the experience of going to a Black college.


  • Watermelon and Red Birds: A Cookbook for Juneteenth and Black Celebrations

The way we cook and share food is one of the most important things in any culture. It shows what moments and traditions a culture holds dear. "Watermelon and Red Birds" is the very first book that celebrates Juneteenth. It was written by food writer Nicole A. Taylor, and it has recipes from her own experiences celebrating this holiday over the years.


PBS Black in Latin America

This four-part series from 2014, created by Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr., explores the impact of millions of people with African roots on the history and rich cultures of Latin America and the Caribbean. Just like his book with the same name, in this series, Professor Gates helps us understand this fascinating history.