As demonstrators across America fight to liberate black people, whether through calls to abolish the police or through legislative action against systemic racism, the country is getting ready to celebrate the 155th anniversary of one of its earliest liberation moments: Juneteenth.
A portmanteau of “June” and “nineteenth,” Juneteenth marks the day in 1865 when a group of enslaved people in Galveston, Texas, finally learned that they were free from the institution of slavery. But, woefully, this was almost two and a half years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation; the Civil War was still going on, and when it ended, Union Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger traveled to Texas and issued an order stating that all enslaved people were free, establishing a new relationship between “former masters and slaves” as “employer and hired labor.” As much as Juneteenth represents freedom, it also represents how emancipation was tragically delayed for enslaved people in the deepest reaches of the Confederacy.
Newly freed black people celebrated the first Juneteenth in 1866 to commemorate liberation — with food, singing, and the reading of spirituals — and take pride in their progress. But a century and a half later, Juneteenth is still not taught in most schools, nor is the event a federal holiday despite decades of pushing from activists. In 1980, Texas became the first state to declare Juneteenth an official holiday. In 2020, Washington, DC, and nearly every state recognize the day as a holiday or observance.
While Juneteenth celebrations span the world — the global diaspora has adopted the day as one to recognize emancipation at large — the calls for Juneteenth to be a national holiday have grown stronger amid a climate seeking justice for black lives. Just this month, a number of corporations and institutions like Nike and the NFL have announced plans to recognize Juneteenth as a company holiday. Coinciding with the worldwide protests against systemic racism, and the mounting cultural pressure to reckon with America’s racist history, Juneteenth is receiving increased attention in 2020.
Setting the foundation for Juneteenth
During the Civil War, the US Congress passed the Confiscation Act of 1862, which authorized Union troops to seize Confederate property, including enslaved people. The act also allowed the Union army to recruit black soldiers. Months later, as the nation approached its third year of the Civil War, President Lincoln on January 1, 1863, would affirm the aims of the act by issuing the final draft of the Emancipation Proclamation. The document declared that “all persons held as slaves […] are, and henceforth, shall be free.”
I do order and declare that all persons held as slaves within said designated States, and parts of States, are, and henceforward shall be free; and that the Executive government of the United States, including the military and naval authorities thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of said persons.
In 1863, the proclamation legally freed millions of enslaved people in the Confederacy, but it exempted those in the Union-loyal border states of Delaware, Maryland, Missouri, and Kentucky. These states held Confederate sympathies and could have seceded; Lincoln exempted them from the proclamation to prevent this. In April 1864, the Senate attempted to close this loophole by passing the 13th Amendment, prohibiting slavery and involuntary servitude in all states, Union and Confederate. But the amendment wouldn’t be enacted by ratification until December 1865.
And though the Civil War ended in April 1865 when Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox, Virginia, enslaved people in Texas didn’t learn about their freedom until June 19, 1865. On that day, almost two and a half years after Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger of the Union army arrived in Galveston and issued General Order No. 3 that secured the Union army’s authority over Texas. The order stated:
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.
The order reveals how slavery slowly unraveled as an institution in the early 1860s, as Union armies bored south, occupying plantations from the Southern border to the Deep South and finally to the periphery in Texas. Emancipation came gradually for many enslaved people, the culmination of a century of American abolition efforts, North and South.
Freedom came gradually ahead of the first Juneteenth celebration
Still, even under Order No. 3, as historian Henry Louis Gates Jr. noted, freedom wasn’t automatic for Texas’s 250,000 enslaved people. “On plantations, masters had to decide when and how to announce the news — or wait for a government agent to arrive — and it was not uncommon for them to delay until after the harvest,” he wrote.
According to Gates, newly freed black women and men rallied around June 19th in that first year, transforming it from a “day of unheeded military orders into their own annual rite.”