Juneteenth: A Celebration of Freedom

by Brieanna Capers, Homage Black Community Outreach Specialist

Juneteenth, a portmanteau of “June” and “nineteenth,” marks the oldest nationally celebrated commemoration of the ending of slavery in the United States. Freedom finally came on June 19, 1865, when Union troops arrived in Galveston, Texas, to take control of the state and ensure that all enslaved people be freed. More than 250,00 enslaved black people had finally learned they were free from the institution of slavery by executive decree, two and a half years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. 

The Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863, declared that “all persons held as slaves … are, and henceforth, shall be free,” had legally liberated millions of enslaved people, but freedom was not automatic. While the proclamation only applied to places under Confederate control and not to slave-holding border states or rebel areas already under Union control, as Northern troops advanced into the Confederate South, many enslaved people fled behind Union lines. After the conclusion of the Civil War and the surrender of Confederate General Robert Lee in April of 1865, troops were finally strong enough to influence and overcome the resistance. 

Major General Gordon Granger led the Union troops into Galveston on June 19 of 1865 and issued “General Order No. 3” 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 rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired laborer.”  

This profound news caused reactions ranging from pure shock to immediate jubilation, as these newly freed women and men were given something never received before…hope. 

Emancipation Day celebration, June 19, 1900, held in “East Woods” on East 24th Street in Austin. Credit: Austin History Center.

At the beginning of the 1900s, cultural and economic forces led to the decline of Juneteenth participants and celebrations. The migration to textbook and classroom education diminished the harsh realities of slavery and placed much less emphasis and detail on the lives of former slaves. Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation signed in January of 1863, was the date signaling the ending of slavery in classroom textbooks with little to no mention of the impact of General Granger’s arrival on June 19. While July 4 was already the established Independence holiday, the rise in patriotism steered more toward this celebration. 

In 1980, after attention had moved from school desegregation and the civil rights movement in the late 1950s and 1960s, Juneteenth was revived and became an official holiday in Texas. Over time, Juneteenth commemorations featured music, barbecues, prayer services and other activities, and as Black people migrated to other parts of the country the Juneteenth tradition spread. In June 2021, Congress passed a resolution establishing Juneteenth as a national holiday; President Joe Biden signed it into law days before the very first Juneteenth would be commemorated.  

Today, Juneteenth celebrates African American freedom and achievement while encouraging continuous self-development and respect for all cultures. The meaning of Juneteenth is being seized more broadly by activists as an opportunity for the United States to come to terms with how slavery continues to affect the lives of all Americans today — it is something for everyone, of every race, to engage in. While the national holiday obviously would not end racism, it continues to help foster dialogue about the trauma that has resulted from the enslavement of 4 million people for more than 250 years.  

Juneteenth celebration, June 19, 2020, held in Everett, WA hosted by Brieanna Capers.

Arranged at my home in Everett, WA, I assembled my closest family and friends and hosted our first annual Juneteenth party. We ordered custom shirts that spelled out EQUALITY. Understanding the significance of the holiday and our gathering, we paid homage to Black culture in as many ways possible. We watched “What is Juneteenth?” by AL.com, ate southern food, jammed to throwback hip hop music, played games, and enjoyed each other’s company. It was important for us to know our culture, pass that along to our kids, and create a space for open dialog amongst our peers who are not Black. Our Juneteenth celebration has carried on and will carry on for years to come as we are determined to keep our history alive while we continue to write history today. 

Respect and appreciation for all our differences grow out of exposure and working together. Getting involved by supporting Juneteenth celebrations creates new bonds of friendship and understanding among us. 

Sources: https://www.npr.org/2021/06/17/1007315228/juneteenth-what-is-origin-observation; https://www.ncmuseumofhistory.org/blog/juneteenth 

Originally published in The Everett Daily Herald on June 15, 2022.

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