As we celebrate the second year of Juneteenth being observed as a national holiday, it’s important we remember that the holiday is a bigger celebration beyond a three-day weekend and parties.
Juneteenth celebrates the end to slavery in the United States, and is considered one of the longest-running holidays in the African-American community. While it was officially recognized as a federal holiday in June 2021, Juneteenth’s initial celebration dates back to 157 years ago. Juneteenth, short for “June Nineteenth,” marks the day when federal troops arrived in Galveston, Texas in 1865 to enforce the freedom of all enslaved people. The troops’ arrival came two and half years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation issued by President Abraham Lincoln on January 1, 1863.
The Emancipation Proclamation was intended to declare all enslaved people in Confederate States in rebellion against the Union to be free “then, thenceforward, and forever.” However, that wasn’t the case for rebel areas already in control by the Union and slave-holding border states such as Delaware, Maryland, Missouri, and Kentucky. Despite those states holding confederate sympathies and having opportunity to secede from the Union, President Lincoln exempted them from the proclamation to prevent it. In April 1864, the Senate attempted to tie up the loose ends by passing the 13th Amendment, prohibiting slavery in both Confederate and Union states. The 13th Amendment wouldn’t become enforced by ratification until December 1865, meaning it took two whole years until the emancipation of enslaved people to be legally established.
As tensions rose between the Union and the Confederacy, Northern troops pushed their way into the Confederate South to control the areas. In Texas, however, slavery continued at a larger scale due to the lack of Union troop presence, becoming an attraction for enslavers to move to the state. Following the Civil War’s end and Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Virginia’s Appomattox Court House in April 1865, U.S. General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston alongside his troops to read the General’s Orders, No. 3 — a legal decree that would change the trajectory of Black Americans’ lives forever: “The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free.”
Freedom didn’t come overnight for Texas’ 250,000 enslaved people, as enslavers had to decide whether they wanted to withhold the news until a government official arrived or not. For newly freed Black people, their joy and happiness resounded louder than the rolling seas as they celebrated a feat in Black history and the promise of their children’s freedom for generations to follow.
The first-ever Juneteenth celebration happened in 1866 in Texas, as freedmen organized “Jubilee Day” on June 19. The celebration was full of food, sporting events, singing, spiritual readings, and undeniable pride in their progress as freed people. Communities also rejoiced in their freedom by reading aloud the Emancipation Proclamation. The proclamation motivated the freed during the Reconstruction era, as the South worked to rebuild their economy and ratify the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments — which gave Black people freedom, due process, and the right to vote.
The goals of the Reconstruction era seemed promising, but it was constantly threatened by white supremacy. For instance, Mississippi established a racially targeted state constitution to disenfranchise local Black people by requiring people to be able to read and comprehend the local constitution in order to vote. As a result of being withheld from literacy, thousands of Black people were barred from voting in Mississippi in the 1890s.
Juneteenth gave hope to many during both the Reconstruction and Jim Crow eras. Over the years, the holiday migrated to neighboring states and beyond — even out west to California. In 1979, Texas became the first state to recognize Juneteenth as an official holiday; others followed suit in later years. In 2020, the Democratic Party introduced a bill to make Juneteenth an official holiday. However, the bill was blocked by Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) on the grounds of the United States being unable to afford another federal holiday off for workers. A year later, the bill was signed into law by President Joe Biden on June 16 — the day before Juneteenth would be commemorated as a national holiday.
Given the racial climate and urgency for justice for Black lives, Juneteenth is a holiday needed now more than ever before. Many pose counterarguments about the celebration of Juneteenth — one reason being the need to not relive the United States’ “dark past.” However, it is evident that slavery continues to affect the lives of Black people over four centuries later in the forms of systemic, institutional, interpersonal, and internalized racism. Slavery’s effects trickle down to Black people’s interactions with police, health care providers, and even schools — the school-to-prison pipeline directly affects Black people, especially men.
The misconception of Juneteenth’s significance is also due to the lack of educational curriculum surrounding it. In a critical time where dozens of states are seeking to ban critical race theory from school curricula, Juneteenth is a historical event that is at risk of being completely whitewashed. The day might seem like a small glimpse of Black history, but in order to understand widely known milestones such as the Civil Rights movement, it’s important to teach the significance of the holiday. Juneteenth highlights enslaved people’s challenge of exploitation and slavery, begins the discussion of healing from generational trauma, and is ideation of what freedom looks like for Black people as a collective.
Similar to our ancestors’ festivities, Juneteenth will be full of celebrations in some of the most fun ways possible — protests, cookouts, parties, good food and good vibes. In the midst of celebrating, it’s imperative that we take the opportunity to heal ourselves and restore faith in our futures. To learn the history of Juneteenth is not to constantly relive the hatred of others against us. Instead, it is to teach us about where we once were, where we are, and where we’re going.