Juneteenth: The History Behind the Holiday

Juneteenth, short for June Nineteenth, commemorates the end of slavery in the United States. On January 1st, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation declaring all enslaved people in Confederate States were legally free. Union soldiers marched onto plantations across cities in the south spreading the news of freedom in Confederate States. Although the Emancipation Proclamation was a major turning point in the fight to end slavery, it did not end slavery across the entire nation. The proclamation applied only to states that had seceded from the Union and exempted parts of the Confederacy that had already come under Union control. Therefore, in the westernmost Confederate state of Texas, African Americans were still held in brutal bondage. On June 19th, 1865, Major General Gordon Granger and 2,000 Union troops arrived in Galveston, Texas to take control of the state and free more than 250,000 enslaved African Americans. This day became known as “Juneteenth,” by the newly freed people in Texas. 

On June 19th, 1866, the first official Juneteenth celebrations took place in Texas. Celebrations included prayer meetings, the singing of spirituals, and celebrants wore new clothes as a way of representing their newfound freedom. In the following years, celebrations spread across the United States and has now evolved to include religious services, speeches, educational events, family gatherings and picnics, and festivals. What was once a holiday primarily celebrated by African Americans has been thrust into mainstream culture, as states around the country have recognized it as an official holiday in an effort to be more inclusive and culturally aware. Although celebrated across the country Juneteenth was not always recognized as a federal holiday. In 1980 Juneteenth became a state holiday in Texas. It was not until 2021, when President Joe Biden signed legislation, that Juneteenth was recognized as a federal holiday. This push for federal recognition came after the 2020 protests following the police killing of George Floyd in Minnesota. The civil unrest across the country forced people and politicians to confront the long violent history of racism in America.  

Today, our Nation commemorates Juneteenth as a chance to celebrate human freedom, reflect on the grievous and ongoing legacy of slavery, and rededicate ourselves to rooting out the systemic racism that continues to plague society. It is a day of both pain and purpose, a remembrance of the injustice of slavery, but a celebration of the efforts to bring forth a brighter future. This Juneteenth we hope that you use the day to remember the sacrifices that were made for freedom in the United States.