The History of Juneteenth

Many people did not know much about Juneteenth (A.K.A. Freedom Day) until this year. Juneteenth is the oldest nationally celebrated commemoration of the ending of slavery in the United States. On June 19th 1865, the Union soldiers arrived in Galveston, Texas to deliver the news that the war was over and that slaves were free. This was two and a half years after President Abraham Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation. However, due to the lack of union troops in Texas, they were unable to enforce Lincoln’s order so slavery continued. It wasn’t until Major General Gordon Granger arrived with his regiment on the 19th that they were able to officially overcome the confederacy and slavery. 

Abraham Lincoln signing the Emancipation Proclamation

There are several theories as to why there was a two and a half year delay for the news to reach Texas. The first is that the messenger who was to deliver the news of the war’s end and the EP was murdered on his way to Texas. Another is that the news was deliberately withheld by the enslavers to maintain the labor force on the plantations. The last theory is that federal troops actually waited for the slave owners to reap the benefits of one last cotton harvest before going to Texas to enforce the Emancipation Proclamation. No one knows for sure which, if any, of these theories are true. 

Following the years of slavery, Juneteenth was actively celebrated but in the early 1900’s the festivity on the day began to decline. This can be attributed to the fact that it was omitted from history textbooks and seldom taught in schools. Most textbooks claim slavery ended nationally when the Emancipation Proclamation was signed completely leaving out Texas and General Granger’s arrival on June 19th. Further, The Depression forced many people off the farms and into the cities to find work. In these urban environments, employers were less eager to grant leaves to celebrate this date. So unless June 19th fell on a weekend or holiday, there were very few celebrations. Also, July 4th was already the established Independence holiday and a rise in patriotism steered more toward this celebration.

The death of George Floyd has,once again, highlighted the injustices that black people face in America every day. Because of this, a lot of black people are boycotting the celebration of July 4th and instead putting their energy into Juneteenth. “I don’t think it’s right to celebrate a country being free when black people can’t even completely call themselves free and don’t benefit from the same aspects that white people do,” said Toni Willie (‘23). 

This year I have personally seen an increase in Juneteenth celebrations such as block parties, BBQs, and get-togethers. Nike, Target, and Twitter are just some of the corporations who announced that they are making Juneteenth a paid holiday. Seeing changes like these are nice to see and is definitely a step in the right direction. Hopefully this day will continue to be recognized in years to come and be added to history curriculums. 

Celebrating Juneteenth | Southern Poverty Law Center

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