What Is Juneteenth?: An Article from African-American History

What Is Juneteenth?: An Article from African-American History

“Juneteenth” is an annual African-American celebration commemorating the 1865 abolition of slavery in Texas.

Though cut off from the rest of the South in 1863, much of Texas remained unoccupied by Union troops until Union general Gordon Granger arrived at Galveston, Texas, 10 weeks after Lee’s surrender. On June 19, 1865, Granger issued General Order No. 3, declaring: “The people of Texas are informed that all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of rights of property between masters and slaves and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and free laborer.” Thus, two and a half years after Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, Granger made it the law in Texas.

As word of Granger’s order spread, African Americans joined in spontaneous celebration of “Juneteenth.” Beginning in 1866, the anniversary of Juneteenth became an occasion for picnics, baseball games, family reunions, and other revelry. By the turn of the 20th century, Juneteenth celebrations also featured prayer services and oratory. Speakers typically urged celebrants to dedicate themselves to education and spiritual uplift.

As late as the 1930s, tens of thousands of people participated in Juneteenth celebrations across Texas. With the number of former slaves dwindling, however, Juneteenth shrank in importance after World War II. The rise of public education may have also played a role; history textbooks dated the end of slavery to Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 proclamation rather than to events in Texas.

In the late 1960s, Juneteenth celebrations began again to grow as African Americans reclaimed their history. Juneteenth was prominent, for instance, on the buttons and banners Texans carried to the June 1969 Poor People’s March on Washington, D.C. As interest revived, pressure mounted to declare Juneteenth a state holiday in Texas, a goal achieved in 1980. Juneteenth has since become a national symbol of slavery’s demise, a fact marked by the 1999 publication of Ralph Ellison’s posthumous novel Juneteenth, set in early 20th-century Texas. Says one of Ellison’s characters, “There’ve been a heap of Juneteenths gone by and there’ll be a heap more before we’re free.”

Excerpted from “Juneteenth,” African-American History, Infobase, Accessed June 2021. 

For more on Juneteenth and the history of slavery in America, check out African-American History.

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