Hey Hal…What is Juneteenth anyway?
Unfortunately, key dates, events and important people have been largely omitted from many “standard” textbooks in schools across the US such that many are still unclear about how blacks have both significantly contributed to — and were impacted by — much of this history. The Hal app has been getting swamped with one question today: What is Juneteenth anyway?
Let’s go ahead and unpack some important information as to why this date is so important in American history and how long it took to become a Federal holiday!
So how did it all come about? Well, it’s a symbolic date representing African American freedom from slavery. The end of slavery is often recognized as when the Emancipation Proclamation was signed by Abraham Lincoln in 1863; however, Juneteenth recognizes when the last slaves were actually told about the president’s order.
On June 19, 1865, two and half years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, Major General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, and announced the end of the Civil War and the end of slavery by sharing what was called Order Number 3. It is crucial to note that in the state of Texas there were roughly 250,000 slaves still in servitude at the time of the announcement. The irony is that while the Emancipation Proclamation was historically heralded as the event that freed the slaves, that is not the case. Lincoln’s famous declaration of freedom applied to all those slaves who were in the confederacy, as an intended means to cripple the war effort of the Confederates. As a result, it did not end slavery nor did it explicitly give that same freedom to those slaves in the Union states.
Since hundreds of thousands of slaves were recruited to defend the Confederate cause for the South, the Emancipation Proclamation would seriously hamper their efforts to use blacks on the front lines. Further, the southern states held closely to their desire for free labor and did not want to give up slavery. So Lincoln included the fact that if a Southern state that was part of the Confederacy but opted to instead become part of the Union before January 1st, then that state would not have to make slavery illegal. However, if they held to their Confederate stand in the Civil War and did not join the Union after that date, then that Confederate state would have to, by way of Federal decree, make slavery illegal and release all slaves in the state as free men and women. It was a power play to enhance the Union effort, but by no means did it end slavery.
In fact, it wasn’t until 1865 when the Thirteenth Amendment was formally added to the U.S. Consitution that slavery was abolished.
The 13th Amendment, Section 1 reads:
“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”
Juneteenth was originally recognized on June 19th, 1866 before it spread to other states. Of course, the shameful aspect of this historic event was that in most Southern states, and most especially Texas with nearly a quarter of a million slaves, white slave owners or “Masters” were reluctant to allow this freedom to flourish as intended and often threatened violence or other economic means to discourage those freed slaves to attempt to make it on their own as equals and as wage earners. Texans did not like losing their lifeline to free labor and other Southern states viewed the 13th Amendment with similar scorn. Arguably, while freedom was long overdue, slavery itself, along with the stripping of civil and human rights for blacks during that time helped to create the systemic racism that became so prevalent and deep seeded in a predominantly white America.
Juneteenth was largely only known among the black community for over a century and African Americans celebrated with prayer services, speakers with inspirational messages, reading of the Emancipation Proclamation, stories from former slaves, food, red soda water, games, rodeos, and dances. Through the years, it was also a big event in black churches as a means of celebrating the rights of blacks as equals, but went unmentioned and quite unknown to a white majority. While it wasn’t until over a century later that Texas ultimately recognized Juneteenth as a state holiday (January 1, 1980) — it took over another 40 years before President Biden officially put forth legislation declaring Juneteenth as a Federal holiday.