African Americans lived in bondage for hundreds of years. Abolitionists such as Fredrick Douglass and Sojourner Truth worked tirelessly for the United States government to end slavery. And when President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, it appeared that slavery—also known as the peculiar institution—had come to a permanent halt. For many African Americans, life remained the same, however. That’s because fierce racial discrimination prevented them from living autonomous lives. More shockingly, some enslaved African Americans had no idea that President Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation, which mandated that they be set free. In Texas, more than two-and-a-half years passed before slaves received their freedom. The holiday known as Juneteenth Independence Day honors these slaves as well as African-American heritage and the contributions blacks have made to the United States.
History of JuneteenthJuneteenth marks the date of June 19, 1865, when Gen. Gordon Granger of the Union Army arrived in Galveston, Texas, to declare that the slaves there be set free. Texas was one of the last states where slavery endured. Although President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, African Americans remained in bondage in the Lone Star State. When Gen. Granger arrived in Texas, he read General Order No. 3 to Galveston residents:
“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 quietly at their present homes and work for wages.”
Following Granger’s announcement, the formerly enslaved African Americans broke into celebration. Today that celebration, said to be the oldest black American holiday, is known as Juneteenth. African Americans not only celebrated their freedom, they exercised their new rights by buying land across Texas, namely Emancipation Park in Houston, Booker T. Washington Park in Mexia and Emancipation Park in Austin.
Past and Present Juneteenth CelebrationsThe first massive Juneteenth celebrations kicked off the year after Gen. Granger appeared in Galveston. Historic Juneteenth celebrations included religious services, readings of the Emancipation Proclamation, inspirational speakers, stories from former slaves and games and contests, including rodeo events. Many African Americans celebrated Juneteenth in the same way that Americans generally celebrate the Fourth of July.
Today, Juneteenth celebrations feature similar activities. As of 2012, 40 states and the District of Columbia recognize the Juneteenth holiday. Since 1980, the state of Texas has observed Juneteenth as an official holiday known as Emancipation Day. Contemporary celebrations of Juneteenth in Texas and elsewhere include parades and street fairs, dancing, picnics and cookouts, family reunions and historical reenactments. Moreover, President Barack Obama pointed out in his 2009 proclamation of the holiday that Juneteenth “also serves as a time for reflection and appreciation, and an opportunity for many people to trace their family’s lineage.”
While African Americans widely celebrate Juneteenth today, the popularity of the holiday has waned during certain periods, such as World War II. Holiday celebrations of Juneteenth resurrected in 1950, but by the last years of that decade and in the 1960s, Juneteenth celebrations declined once more. Juneteenth became a popular holiday again in a variety of regions during the 1970s. In the early 21st century, Juneteenth is not only a well celebrated holiday, there’s a push to have the 19th of June become a National Day of Recognition for slavery.
Call for National Day of Recognition
The Rev. Ronald V. Myers Sr., founder and chairman of the National Juneteenth Holiday Campaign and the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation, has asked President Barack Obama to “issue a presidential proclamation to establish Juneteenth Independence Day as a National Day of Observance in America, similar to Flag Day or Patriot Day.” As an elected official in Illinois, Barack Obama supported legislation for his state to recognize Juneteenth, but the president has yet to make a move that would make Juneteenth a National Day of Recognition. Only time will tell if Juneteenth and the slavery of African Americans is ever acknowledged by the federal government in such an official capacity.