If you are anything like me, the term Juneteenth was a bit foreign. In school, we were taught about Abraham Lincoln and his role in the emancipation of the enslaved people that lived in America, oftentimes having that day referred to as Emancipation Day. However, that is not the true Emancipation Day, as I have come to learn. Let’s take a look at the history of Juneteenth.
The Emancipation Proclamation
In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, declaring that all enslaved people were and will forever be free. Why, then, is Juneteenth celebrated as Emancipation Day and Freedom Day? At first, it may confuse due to the Emancipation Proclamation being issued on January 1, 1863, whereas the official date of Juneteenth is June 19, 1865. The combination of June and nineteenth would soon become the term for this historic day.
The reason for this discrepancy, as with many major societal changes, was that there were a large group of people who still disagreed with the abolition of slavery, even after the Presidential executive order. After the Emancipation Proclamation was issued, hundreds of thousands of enslaved people were moved from the Confederate states to the state of Texas. For nearly two more years, these people lived in slavery, perhaps even worse than they had before, with little to no knowledge or support despite the fact that they had actually been freed.
There were a few reasons for this. Firstly, Texas was, at the time, a part of the nation where it was difficult to bring news outside of wagons. Steamboats and trains could not reach the southern state. Two and a half years passed between the Emancipation Proclamation and the Thirteenth Amendment, and that time was just as tumultuous as the war that preceded it.
The proclamation itself was a double-edged blade for those involved as it was meant to encourage the Confederate states to return to the Union before January 1. If the states joined with the Union once more, they would not have to make slavery illegal, but if they didn’t, their slaves would immediately be declared free. The result was a long political battle as the Confederate states did not recognize Lincoln as their president and therefore defied his decrees.
Due to this conflict, Major General Gordon Granger had to march to Galveston, Texas, to spread the word of Lincoln’s decree and enforce the freedom of the remaining enslaved people. As a result, June 19th, or Juneteenth, came to be known as Emancipation Day, when the last enslaved people were truly and finally freed.
If you are looking to read a more historical recounting of the events, check out The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation by David Brion Davis. The third volume in this series takes a deeper look at the years following the Emancipation Proclamation and the willed moral progress that this country struggled with.
Juneteenth as a Holiday
Juneteenth is an essential milestone in the history of America and its society. While it is tempting to try and look away from what caused the nation to need this holiday, it helps to remember the steps the U.S. had to go through. In order to dissuade the racism that brought about slavery, days of remembrance and celebration like Juneteenth are encouraged. These days also provide an opportunity to lift up the stories of those who have been so crucial in the development and progress of this nation that might not have been celebrated due to the color of their skin.
The first state to establish Juneteenth as a holiday was Texas in 1980. Before this, however, there were yearly celebrations involving the celebrants wearing new clothes, singing spirituals, and attending prayer meetings, most of which are still practiced today. In the years following, many other states declared it a state holiday or a day of observance in order to preserve history and commemorate it.
Despite the importance of the holiday, it would still take over 150 years to become a federal commemoration. As of June 16, 2021, Juneteenth has now become a federal holiday after making it through Congress and then being signed by President Joe Biden. The fact that the holiday has just become recognized federally after so many years speaks to its importance. A day to recognize those that have helped to shape this nation and to remember those affected during the more tumultuous times.
Juneteenth by Ralph Ellison is a book that gives us a glimpse into the tradition and its development from the perspective of those affected most, those who should be celebrated, and the contemporary era of its day.
Further Research and Spreading the Word
Today we have barely scratched the surface of the rich history of Juneteenth. If you find yourself curious about the different stories surrounding this historic day, be sure to check out one of the many books published on the topic!
Here is another whole article on book recommendations.