Juneteenth, also known as Freedom Day and Liberation Day, is celebrated on the 19th of June. It commemorates the day, June 19, 1965, that a declaration of freedom for all slaves (General Orders No. 3) was read from the balcony of Ashton Villa in Galveston, Texas. Even though the Emancipation Proclamation had formally freed them on September, 22, 1862, and the Confederacy had been defeated in April of 1865, the state of Texas was the most remote Confederate state so the knowledge and enforcement of the proclamation had been virtually non-existent. Numerous theories exist for why Texas slaves were the last to know or why the proclamation was not more strongly and universally enforced.
Despite the Emancipation Proclamation and end of the Civil War, slavery was still legal and existed in the Union border states including Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, Missouri, and West Virginia until December 6, 1865 with the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. The Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery in all U.S. states and territories.
Juneteenth celebrations date to as early as 1866 in Texas, first as family, church, and community gatherings. Soon, it was celebrated annually throughout the South with parades, rodeos, food festivals, public readings of the Emancipation Proclamation, music, singing, and historical reenactments. The first official celebration was in Austin, Texas in 1867 with the support of the Freedmen’s Bureau. In 1872 a group of black leaders purchased 10 acres in Houston to be used for the celebration of Juneteenth – now known as Houston’s Emancipation Park.
Texas Legislature, through the efforts of Al Edwards, an African American state legislator, officially made Juneteenth a state holiday on January 1, 1980, becoming the first state to do so. It is now recognized as a state holiday or day of observance in 49 of the 50 states. It has yet to be declared a national holiday. The Great Migration from 1940 through 1970 saw more than five million black people leave Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and other parts of the South. They took Juneteenth with them to the places they went.
During the Jim Crow era, African Americans were prohibited from using many public spaces, so Juneteenth celebrations took place at their churches or near the water. It was common for families to make a pilgrimage to Galveston. All the early celebrations were known for good food and wearing your best clothes. Today it is much the same, with the celebration of soul food and food that is red in color to symbolize the blood shed by the enslaved people. Clothing remains an important part of Juneteenth, especially for direct descendants. During slavery there were laws prohibiting certain clothing from slaves, so the act of dressing up is an act of honoring those ancestors.
In addition to the celebration, there is an emphasis on education and activism. Many formal events include lectures, plays, voter registration efforts, and recognition of African American heritage, struggle, and pride in this country.
Juneteenth is the oldest nationally celebrated remembrance of the end of slavery in the United States. As part of a shared history in the United States, it serves as a moment to share in the celebration of freedom and to reflect and learn. The words read from the balcony that day by Union General Gordon Granger included:
“The people of Texas are informed that in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired laborer."
The slaves listening to his words reacted in both shock and joy. Some stayed but many left to try and find family in other states or simply to experience freedom for the first time in their lives.
From the words of Al Edwards after working to make Juneteenth a state holiday in Texas: