Juneteenth marks the day Major General Gordon Granger of the Union Army read Federal orders in the city of Galveston, Texas on June 19, 1865, stating that all enslaved people in the state were free. This was two months after the official end of the Civil War (April 9, 1965), and nearly two years after President Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation (January 1, 1863).
Most of us likely recall being taught about the Emancipation Proclamation in school as children. Often, it was presented in a way that painted the image that once the proclamation was issued, all enslaved people were free, without exception. The proclamation declared “that all persons held as slaves” within the rebellious states “are, and henceforward shall be free.” While a monumental moment, it was largely symbolic; slavery was not abolished across the country overnight.
The proclamation was limited to states that had seceded from the United States, leaving slavery unimpacted in the loyal border states. It also didn’t apply to Southern secessionist states that had already come under Northern control. The linchpin was that the proclamation was dependent on U.S. Army victory and enforcement of the proclamation by the U.S. Army. Juneteenth is significant in that it marks the day that Army troops, along with General Granger, arrived in Galveston, Texas to announce and enforce the proclamation. Texas was the last state of the Confederacy in which enslaved people were officially informed of their freedom and that the Civil War was over.
The handwritten General Orders, Number 3 read in part:
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.”
It wouldn’t be until six months after General Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas and shared General Order, Number 3 that the 13th Amendment would be ratified (December 1865), abolishing slavery in the entire country.
University of Colorado Denver Vice Chancellor for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Antonio Farias explains that even after the Civil War had ended, Southern states still passed laws trying to institute slavery by a different name, including laws against Black people gathering in large groups. The General Orders, Number 3 that was read in Galveston still included these caveats: “The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.”
Farias shares, “Juneteenth is not just the end of slavery, but the acknowledgement of freedom’, Juneteenth celebrates Black resiliency: “the vibrancy of Black culture during Juneteenth remains a testament to the resiliency, creativity, and joy of a people, our brothers and sisters on a relentless path toward true justice.”
While it had been the last Confederate state to be informed that the Civil War was over and that slavery was abolished, Texas became the first state to mark Juneteenth as an official holiday in 1980. Juneteenth became a Federal holiday in 2021, receiving the same honor and recognition as other Federal holidays. This means that Federal workers receive a paid day off, along with there being no mail delivery. Federal offices, banks, and bond markets that trade U.S. government debt are closed. Each state decides whether its employees receive a paid day off, and as of 2022, at least 24 states and Washington D.C. recognize it as a holiday. Other state legislatures have yet to follow suit, with the monetary cost of providing the benefit being an obstacle, while others cite a lack of awareness of Juneteenth.
Some might ask why it was that it took so long for Texas to receive word that the Civil War was over and that enslaved people were free. It wasn’t the distance from the epicenter of the Civil War, or a lack of technology that prevented information from spreading. In fact, telegraph was widely used throughout the war to share information. By the time U.S. Army troops arrived in Galveston, news of the war ending and the proclamation were widely known, having been printed in at least 100 Texas newspapers.
Some slave owners actively prevented enslaved Black people from learning of their recent emancipation. But, the real reason people were still in bondage when Union troops arrived is because of local leaders. The Texas Confederate constitution prohibited manumission (release from slavery). Today, local leaders that avoid passing state legislature to include Juneteenth as a holiday prevent awareness of the significance of Juneteenth and the experience of those enslaved, reflecting how far we have to go in acknowledging our history and the progress that lies ahead.
Juneteenth celebrations largely died out during the Jim Crow era, some historians theorize segregation made the holiday too difficult to observe. One source shared that the Civil Rights movement again brought national recognition, with one Juneteenth celebration occurring after a march on Washington following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. From that, activists embraced the celebration once again, and have continued to honor and share its significance. More recently, the renewed movement against racial strife has encouraged many to lift the tradition of Juneteenth into the fold of other celebrations we honor as a nation, where it rightfully belongs.