Juneteenth (short for June 19th) marks the day in 1865 when enslaved African Americans throughout Texas learned that they were free. The news arrived approximately two months after the Confederate surrender in the Civil War and two and a half years after President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.
Juneteenth is the oldest nationally celebrated commemoration of the ending of slavery in the United States. It was on June 19,1865, that Union soldiers led by Major General Gordon Granger landed at Galveston, Texas, with news that the war had ended and that enslaved people were now free. It took this news approximately two months after the Confederate surrender in the Civil War and two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation to reach the people it informed of their freedom.
Here are some facts about the historical moment, and what led up to it.
- You may recall that Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was an executive order declaring immediate freedom for slaves throughout the nation. After the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect, enslaved people in war-torn states often escaped behind Union lines or fought on the Union’s behalf. However, since the country was in the midst of the Civil War, those states that had seceded from the Union did not adhere to the Proclamation, and enslaved people in those states remained so.
- The enslaved people who got the news on Juneteenth were jubilant to hear of their freedom, but it did not come at the “snap of a finger” for everyone in Texas, which was not as closely monitored as other battle states. Some people who should have been freed continued to work through the harvest season because their masters withheld this announcement so as to reap more work from them.
- Slave owners frequently moved to Texas with their workers, as the state had a relatively negligible Union presence after the Civil War. Many people who were actually free were treated as though they were still in bondage.
- In 1980, “Emancipation Day in Texas” became a legal state holiday in recognition of Juneteenth. However, state offices do not completely close, as it is considered a “partial staffing holiday.” Elsewhere, the holiday is also referred to as Emancipation Day, Freedom Day or Black Independence Day.
One hundred fifty-six years later, people across the nation host parades and other gatherings to commemorate this important moment in history. Many companies and higher education institutions across the United States have declared Juneteenth a paid holiday.
-Submitted by Andre Burton, J.D., vice president for Human Resources and Diversity