What is Juneteenth, and how is it celebrated?
Celebrated annually since 1865, Juneteenth is considered the longest-running African-American holiday. But as many as 60 per cent of Americans know “nothing at all” or only “a little bit” about the holiday marking the end of slavery in the United States. Here, we explore the history of Juneteenth and explain its significance
What is Juneteenth?
Juneteenth – short for ‘June nineteenth’ – is a celebration marking the moment in 1865 when enslaved black people in Galveston, Texas, found out they were freed – more than two years after President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. It is also known as Emancipation Day, Juneteenth Independence Day, and Jubilee Day.
Juneteenth has been celebrated annually in the African-American community since 1865 and is considered the longest-running African-American holiday. But it only became a federal holiday in the United States in 2021.
Texas became the first state to designate Juneteenth as an official state holiday back in 1980. All other 49 states (and the District of Columbia) have since recognised the day. Former president Barack Obama co-sponsored legislation to make Juneteenth a national holiday when he was senator of Illinois, but the law was never passed.
It was President Joe Biden who last year signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act, formally recognising Juneteenth as a national holiday. The federal legislation was signed into law after passing unanimously in the US Senate and by a vote of 415–14 in the House of Representatives. President Biden signed the Act in the White House on Thursday 17 June 2021. “Great nations don't ignore their most painful moments,” he said. “We come to terms with the mistakes we made. And remembering those moments, we begin to heal and grow stronger.”
Juneteenth is the first new federal holiday since Martin Luther King Jr Day was established in 1983.
What happened on Juneteenth?
On 19 June 1865, around 2,000 Union troops arrived in Galveston Bay, Texas, to inform enslaved African-Americans of their freedom and to tell them the Civil War had ended. Led by Major General Gordon Granger, who had fought for the Union, the troops took control of the state and announced that the 250,000 enslaved black people in the state were free by executive decree.
Upon his arrival, Granger read out General Order No 3, informing the residents that slavery would no longer be tolerated and that all enslaved people were now free. Enslaved people would henceforth be treated as hired workers if they chose to remain on the plantations, according to the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
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But not all enslaved people were immediately freed – or even soon after. “It was not uncommon for slave owners, unwilling to give up free labour, to refuse to release their slaves until forced to, in person, by a representative of the government,” writes Sharon Pruitt-Young, referencing the work of the historian Henry Louis Gates Jr.
Even after Granger’s announcement, many white people in Texas continued to enslave people who had not heard the news, the Pulitzer Prize–winning historian Annette Gordon-Reed explains. “Those who had heard were often forcibly prevented from acting as if any material change had taken place. Freedom had come in legal terms, but the story was not so clear on the ground as it was on paper. Former enslavers unleashed violence upon the people whom they had claimed as property, and others threatened to do so in order to make people work. Amid joy and hope was great malevolence and power.”
And some of the behaviour of Lincoln’s Union troops towards the former slaves who had escaped or been freed by their owners “was horribly compromised”, writes Lucy Worsley in this article for BBC History Magazine.
In one shameful incident, Union troops left a group of formerly enslaved African-Americans for dead at Ebenezer Creek near Savannah. Brigadier General Jefferson C Davis viewed them as an encumbrance of “useless negroes”, slowing him down and increasing risk.
Worsley explains: “Davis’s army used pontoon bridges to cross a swamp of deep-running black waters at Ebenezer Creek. But in an act that stains the memory and motives of the Union side, he left his unwelcome recruits behind and in danger of falling into Confederate hands. One of Davis’s colleagues believed that this must result in ‘all these negroes being recaptured or perhaps brutally shot’. In the event, many of them died trying to cross the swamp on their own makeshift rafts, or even by swimming through its waters.”
The end of slavery did not mean equality for black Americans, either. “The ending of slavery in a formal sense turned into less official forms of abuse of African-Americans,” says Worsley. “Racial segregation became a fact of life in many formerly Confederate states, as did using the formerly enslaved as poorly paid labour. Indeed, ‘slavery’ was still possible – in all but name.”
A collection of statutes known as the Jim Crow laws forced black people to live, work, and play separately. The laws existed for about 100 years, from the post-Civil War era until the 1950s.
Texas, which had a smaller percentage of black people than other southern states like Mississippi or Alabama, “was a very hard place”, says historian Annette Gordon-Reed. Between 1882 and 1968, it had the third-highest number of lynchings in the United States.
Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation
The ‘Emancipation Proclamation’ issued by President Abraham Lincoln on 1 January 1863 established that all enslaved people in Confederate states in rebellion against the Union “shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free”.
But the Proclamation could not be implemented in places still under Confederate control. As a result, in the westernmost Confederate state of Texas, where there was no large Union Army presence, slavery continued years after the Emancipation Proclamation.
The Emancipation Proclamation did not promise freedom to all enslaved people. And “a number of slave-owning states remained loyal to the Union. Some of those with vulnerable, valuable positions on the border of the Confederacy were allowed to maintain slavery in order to keep them on Lincoln and the Union’s side,” writes Lucy Worsley.
How is Juneteenth celebrated?
After they were freed, some former enslaved people and their descendants would travel to Galveston annually in honour of Juneteenth, writes Sharon Pruitt-Young. “But it wasn't uncommon for white people to bar black people from celebrating in public spaces, forcing [them] to get creative.” In one such case, community members in Houston, Texas – who were all formerly enslaved people – raised $1,000 to purchase land in 1872 that would be devoted specifically to Juneteenth celebrations. It was named Emancipation Park. In the years that followed, Emancipation parks sprung up all over the US. Emancipation Park is today one of Houston’s oldest parks.
Today, Juneteenth is celebrated in a variety of different ways, including parades, carnivals, picnics, and street fairs. Food is a central part of the celebrations – many enjoy meals of red food and drink, which are meant to symbolise sacrifice, resilience, and transformation. Historians note that enslaved people “were often fed foods that were muted in colour and poor in quality, so red foods were prized for being a very special treat”. Today, red velvet cake, watermelon, and red soda water are particularly popular.
Why is Juneteenth important?
Pulitzer Prize–winning historian Annette Gordon-Reed, author of On Juneteenth, says that when she was younger and living in Texas, celebrating Juneteenth “was like celebrating the Fourth of July, but for Black people”.
Reacting last year to the news that Juneteenth had been made a federal holiday, Gordon-Reed said: “Making it a national holiday, something that everybody celebrates, not just Texans, is a way of bringing the story of enslaved people into closer focus. And, I should say, also the aftermath of slavery and the struggle that African-Americans have still been on from those days until today.”
Meanwhile Mary Elliott, curator of American Slavery at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, says: “Juneteenth is for everyone to pause and really think about the meaning and manifestation of freedom.”
Looking to the future of Juneteenth celebrations, Annette Gordon-Reed says: “I would like to see it evolve. I would like to see it continue to be a day, not just for celebration, but a time for thinking about the serious issues that were involved here with the institution of slavery and the problem of racial discrimination.”
Gordon-Reed urged people to reflect during the weeks between Juneteenth and 4 July (Independence Day) on the fact that “not everyone got their freedom in 1776. A lot of us were left out of the original draft of the Constitution”.
A Juneteenth dilemma
University of San Diego historians Professor Channon Miller and Professor TJ Tallie say that 19 June 1865 “marked a moment from whence Black Texans could stake their claim as free people, simultaneously proclaiming their humanity and importance while also rejecting the idea of being the recipients of political largesse.”
But in this article published in Perspectives on History magazine, the professors also say the formal recognition of Juneteenth as a federal holiday is “troubling”. They write: “Juneteenth is a sacred and special holiday for Black Americans with a specific cultural history and intent. It is a form of freedom-making and freedom-marking that has unique meaning for us that cannot be generalized into a wider celebration of freedom for all people in the United States any more than Diwali or Hanukkah can be generalized into universal appreciations of light in the darkness that can be claimed by anyone.
“One of the legacies of enslavement has been the idea that Black people – their bodies, their culture, their work, their livelihoods – are not theirs alone, but communal property.
“This act [the federal holiday proclamation] points to the country’s enduring use of Black people’s visions and articulations of freedom for its own symbolic displays of democracy and exceptionalism. Such a move is performative. Rather than partnering in the ongoing struggle for Black freedom, this bill fails to improve the material, day-to-day lives of Black Americans… The federal government’s commemoration of Juneteenth is a hollow one as long as it refuses to allow the freedom trumpet to sound.”
Meanwhile, Mark Anthony Neal, an author and distinguished professor of African and African-American Studies at Duke University, urges people to remember that Juneteenth “is an example of a Black American tradition that existed well before it was ‘legitimized’ by white American society”.
What is the Juneteenth flag?
The original Juneteenth flag was created in 1997 by the National Juneteenth Celebration Foundation (NJCF) founder, Ben Haith.
While many in the African-American community choose to incorporate the colours red, black, and green in their celebrations of Juneteenth, the colours of the Juneteenth flag are red, white, and blue “to signify the belonging of Black Americans in the fabric of the US”, writes Professor Mark Anthony Neal.
The flag is emblazoned with a star surrounded by a burst. The star is a nod to Texas, known as ‘The Lone Star State’, while the burst is thought to represent new opportunities that lie ahead for black people. The date “June 19, 1865” was added to the flag in 2004.
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To read more about Juneteenth, visit the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which is devoted exclusively to the documentation of African American life, history, and culture.
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