President Abraham Lincoln issued his famous “Emancipation Proclamation” on September 22, 1862. The Proclamation was an executive order freeing the slaves in the Confederate States as of January 1, 1863. However, most slaves remained slaves well past January 1, 1863, for of course this was the height of the Civil War, and the Confederacy was in a state of rebellion at the time, so the executive order could only be enforced as Union armies gradually took Confederate territory.
One of the last places to come under Union control and to implement emancipation was Galveston, Texas. Federal troops arrived in June 1865-the Civil War had formally ended in April, and President Lincoln had been assassinated days later-under the command of General Gordon Granger.
On June 19, General Granger announced from the balcony of Galveston’s Ashton Villa that the slaves were now free (as they legally had been for two and a half years already).
The freed slaves spontaneously celebrated in the streets. The next year, on the anniversary of General Granger’s announcement, Galveston’s former slaves, and by now those in some other Texas cities, treated June 19 as a day to honor and remember the emancipation. Soon it became an annual celebration throughout Texas, acquiring the name “Juneteenth,” short for “June Nineteenth.” It spread to a limited extent to some other states, but it was primarily observed in Texas.
Juneteenth continued to be observed for several decades, but as memories of slavery faded, by the early 20th century Juneteenth celebrations also faded, though never dying out completely.
But it wasn’t just a matter of slavery receding into history. Part of the reason for Juneteenth not taking off in a bigger way was violence and the threat of violence from whites. This was the Jim Crow era after all, and whites of the former Confederate states did not look kindly on celebrations of the Emancipation Proclamation. African Americans held mostly small scale rural celebrations such as barbecues and rodeos for Juneteenth, but were generally dissuaded from larger public festivities.
The civil rights movement brought renewed interest in Juneteenth in the African American community. In 1980, Juneteenth was raised to the level of an official state holiday in Texas.
In 1994, African American leaders gathered in New Orleans, Louisiana at a meeting convened by Reverend John Mosley, Director of the New Orleans Juneteenth Freedom Celebration, to initiate a movement to further rejuvenate Juneteenth on a national level. Since then, considerable progress has been made toward that goal. Well beyond Texas, Juneteenth celebrations have become commonplace in many parts of the country every June. As of 2010, 36 states and the District of Columbia had formally recognized Juneteenth as a State Holiday or State Observance, though sometimes under other names or on other dates. Washington, D.C., for instance, celebrates Emancipation Day on April 16, the day President Lincoln signed the Compensated Emancipation Act in 1862, a forerunner to the Emancipation Proclamation that freed slaves in the District of Columbia itself.
The National Juneteenth Holiday Campaign is working for legislation to make Juneteenth an official National Day of Observance.
Juneteenth can be celebrated in many ways. It is especially appropriate to celebrate it with family, whether a formal dinner or summer barbecue for the immediate family, or a large scale family reunion at a public place. This is to commemorate the fact that slave families were routinely separated against their will, and then with emancipation were given the opportunity to reunite. Family can also be extended beyond that to include a wider neighborhood or community, coming together in a spirit of brotherhood.
Juneteenth can also be an impetus to the study of the relevant history. Many African American families have been inspired by a Juneteenth celebration to trace their genealogy. It is common at public observances of Juneteenth to solemnly read aloud the Emancipation Proclamation, reliving the historic moment at Galveston on June 19, 1865-but at countless other locations throughout the South in 1863, 1864, and 1865 as well-when slaves were informed that they were slaves no more.