JUNETEENTH CELEBRATES FREEDOM FROM BONDS OF SLAVERY
For weeks, demonstrators spilled into the streets of America to protest police brutality and to bring more attention to the systemic injustices African Americans have faced for years. In the middle of this civil unrest, a political controversy sparked a national interest in one of the most important moments in Black history—Juneteenth.
But what is Juneteenth and what is its importance to African Americans?
Juneteenth (June 19) is the date in 1865 when enslaved people in Galveston, Texas, received word that slavery had ended. It is considered the first and oldest national commemoration of the end of slavery. And for many African Americans, it holds more significance than the Fourth of July.
On that date, U.S. Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger read General Order No.3: “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. 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.” –Congressional Research Service
Granger’s announcement reached Texas two and a half years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing enslaved people in Confederate-controlled states. At the time, there were about 250,000 enslaved people in Texas—more than 150,000 of them brought to Texas by their owners fleeing west mainly from Mississippi and Louisiana and away from the Union Army.
Upon hearing the news, while many newly freed people left immediately to find and reunite with their family members, some enslavers suppressed the news until after the harvest and others beat, murdered and lynched freed people who attempted to leave.
On June 19, 1866, the first Juneteenth celebration was held. “Defying confusion and delay, terror and violence, the newly ‘freed’ black men and women of Texas, with the aid of the Freedmen’s Bureau (itself delayed from arriving until September 1865), now had a date to rally around,” Henry Louis Gates Jr. wrote in The Root. “In one of the most inspiring grassroots efforts of the post-Civil War period, they transformed June 19 from a day of unheeded military orders into their own annual rite…”
However, celebrating Juneteenth had its challenges. According to Mentalfloss.com, by 1866, segregation laws prohibited African Americans from using public spaces, but our ancestors would not be denied. The formerly enslaved people who started with nothing, began pooling their money to purchase their own land for their celebrations. In 1872, a group of freed people bought 10 acres of open land for Juneteenth and named it Emancipation Park in what is now Houston.
In Mexia, Texas, the local Juneteenth organization in 1898 purchased what is now known as Booker T. Washington Park for their Juneteenth celebration site.
Although Juneteenth celebrations waned for a while, they began a resurgence in the 1970s. It is now recognized as a holiday in 47 states and the District of Columbia. This year by executive order, Virginia will celebrate Juneteenth as a holiday and many other states and large corporations are doing the same.