A Brief History of Juneteenth and Why We Should Celebrate

by Deonna Anderson

Over two years after President Abraham Lincoln “freed the slaves” in 1865 with his signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, news of this act made it to the confederate state of Texas. Major General Gordon Granger made his way into the port of Galveston, Texas and announced, “The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free.”

The news spread across Texas and reached the state’s hundreds of thousands of enslaved people. This information was met with both shock and jubilee, depending on who was receiving the news. Celebrations erupted across the state. The next year, Juneteenth—formed from the word June and nineteenth—began to be celebrated by the newly freed people of Galveston and other parts of Texas. In 1867, the Federal Bureau—which is an agency whose mission was to provide support for people displaced from the Civil war—held an official Juneteenth celebration in Austin, Texas.

The celebration has morphed over time. At the beginning, it included a history lesson with the elders being called upon to recount the events of the past, rallies with guest speakers and gospel hymns sung by church choirs and community members. Prayer services were also a major part of these celebrations.

Photo: Jonathan Phillips / SPECIAL
Over the years, the celebration spread to other confederate states and during the Great Migration, to the north and west. In Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns, she recounts “The people from Texas took Juneteenth Day to Los Angeles, Oakland, Seattle, and other places they went. Even now, with barbecues and red soda pop, they celebrate June 19, 1865.”
Emancipation Day in Richmond, Virginia, 1905
Photo: VCU Libraries
The celebration has also included rodeos, fishing and baseball. According to Juneteenth.com,
[Juneteenth] is a time for assessment, self-improvement and for planning the future. Its growing popularity signifies a level of maturity and dignity in America long over due. In cities across the country, people of all races, nationalities and religions are joining hands to truthfully acknowledge a period in our history that shaped and continues to influence our society today. Sensitized to the conditions and experiences of others, only then can we make significant and lasting improvements in our society.
Juneteenth has not always been met with warm embrace, and is still not widely celebrated. In the 1860s, newly freed people were often met with violence on this day. There was very little interest to celebrate outside of the African American community. As Black people celebrated their freedom, they had to face the resistance of former slave owners. One remnant of the early Juneteenth celebrations is Emancipation Park, which churches in Texas purchased using collected funds from congregants. This park was to be the home of the celebration, a place of solace and safety for Black people.

Photo: Jonathan Phillips / SPECIAL
Despite its fairly low popularity, Juneteenth’s visibility has grown over the years. In January of 1980, Juneteenth became an official state holiday in Texas through the efforts of state legislator Al Edwards. In 1997, Congress recognized Juneteenth with a joint resolution, memorializing that Juneteenth celebrations had been held for over a century to honor the memory of those who endured slavery and especially those who moved from slavery to freedom. Last year, Maryland became the 43rd state to officially recognize Juneteenth. Institutions including the Smithsonian and the Henry Ford Museum have begun sponsoring Juneteenth-centered activities. Galveston—Juneteenth’s place of inception—is hosting its 150th Juneteenth celebration this weekend.

Photo: Carmen K. Sisson / Dispatch

Deonna Anderson is Junior Editor at For Harriet. Follow her on Twitter @iamDEONNA