A Jubilation 158 Years in the Making; Juneteenth and the Celebration of Black Heritage
June 19th signifies a holiday that has been celebrated for more than 150 years. A holiday that celebrates the emancipation of African Americans from chattel slavery and the ratification of the 13th amendment. The holiday is known as Juneteenth, Freedom Day, or Emancipation Day. It denotes the date on which slaves were granted freedom in Texas. Today, the holiday is celebrated across the states and even around the world. It is a multicultural jubilation that aims at teaching Black heritage and creating a sense of community. While celebrated in the U.S., there has been growing pursuit for the holiday to be recognized on the federal level. The ultimate goal is to establish a date that celebrates the freedom from slavery for African Americans, a second Independence Day.
On Monday, June 19th, 1865, an announcement of General Order №3, given by Union Major-General Gordon Granger, on the island of Galveston, Texas. With the fall of the Confederacy, Union troops marched throughout the South to proclaim all slaves as free men, but that process took time. Texas was one of the last states that Union troops entered, and many rural places, including Galveston, were secluded and far removed from the bloody battlefields of the Civil War. General Granger arrived last at Galveston. He announced the order, which stated,
“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 personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor.” (Granger, 1865)
Celebration of Juneteenth began immediately after the Union General’s statement, with the newly freed slaves celebrating in the streets of Galveston. A year later, freedmen in Texas established the first annual “Jubilee Day” on June 19th. Organizers used this celebration to help the newly freed slaves to vote. However, most Black people were barred from using public places like parks to celebrate with segregation rotting away many newfound freedoms. So many Black people took their celebration to local churches or near water, and a giant feast was set. Thousands were in attendance for the earliest of iterations, and by the 1890s, Jubilee Day became known as Juneteenth.
The early 20th century saw a decline in festivities, as Jim Crow and segregation further disenfranchised Black people and sought to treat them as second-class citizens. Although during the ’30s through ’50s, the Texas State Fair supplied an outlet for Juneteenth. In 1951, 70,000 people attended a Juneteenth Jamboree. With the disenfranchising of black people came a new fight for equal rights. This brought rise to the Civil Rights movement, and while Juneteenth took more of a backseat in this era, it saw a reinvigoration in the ’70s. The revival saw its celebration in other cities across the Midwest and Eastern states. In 1978 a celebration in Milwaukee was said to have over 100,000 attendees.
1979 marked the first of legislation aimed at making Juneteenth an officially recognized holiday. State Representative Al Edwards backed this initiative, and the bill passed through the Texas legislature in 1979 and was made an official state holiday on January 1st, 1980. Other states slowly followed suit, and today only three states do not recognize Juneteenth as a holiday: Hawaii, North and South Dakota. 1996 was the first time legislation hit the U.S. House of Representatives with H. J. Res. 195. Juneteenth continues to receive more mainstream attention, with activists pushing for it to be fully recognized by the federal government.
Juneteenth is considered the longest-running African American holiday. The celebration is described as achieving three steps: “to celebrate, to educate, and to agitate.” The holiday is a remembrance of the past and embraces a more hopeful future. From the Emancipation Proclamation to Union soldiers marching into the South, to the Jim Crow South, segregation, and the Civil Rights movement, police brutality and Black Lives Matter, African Americans still fight for equal rights. On days like June 19th, they celebrate their accomplishments and the road ahead.
There are major celebrations in most big cities in the U.S. as well as abroad, and if you want to learn more, support any Black causes, or just experience the festivities there will likely be events near you to attend.