Juneteenth: The Emancipation Holiday

June 19th is just another summer day for many, but for the last 155 years, African Americans across the United States celebrate freedom from slavery on this day known as “Juneteenth”. Juneteenth is the anniversary of the day Union troops came to Galveston, Texas in 1865 and read Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, freeing slaves in a portion of the last un-emancipated state.

With the black community finally being heard on a national level as a result of the social unrest over George Floyd’s killing, many Americans are educating themselves on the depths of systemic racism and holidays like Juneteenth, which doesn’t receive formal recognition nationally.

Here’s what you need to know about Juneteenth, a holiday that commemorates one of America’s most pivotal historical turning points.

Juneteenth celebration in 1900 at Eastwoods Park. Photo courtesy of Austin History Center.


The Emancipation Proclamation

President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. “All persons held as slaves,” the proclamation stated, “are, and henceforward shall be, free.” The news didn’t make its way to Texas, however, for another two and a half years. Thousands of slaves in a handful of southern territories were unaware of their freedom, as word spread slowly or most likely, outright ignored. Some landowners coordinated with Union troops to wait until the end of a harvest to inform slaves they had been freed, while others resisted until federal troops arrived in person to read Lincoln’s proclamation to the enslaved.

On June 19, 1865 Major General Gordon Granger, along with more than 1,800 federal troops arrived in Galveston, Texas to take control of the state, and ensure freedom for the remaining 250,000 slaves in the area. The newly freed African Americans rejoiced by praying, dancing and gathering for community feasts. Those gatherings recurred each year, commemorating what became known as Freedom Day, later Jubilee Day, and then Juneteenth Independence Day.

The only known copy of General Order #3, which informed Texans the slaves had been freed at the Dallas Historical Society. Photo courtesy of Vernon Bryant.


Not Every Slave Was Freed

While Juneteenth recognizes the last Union announcement of emancipation in Texas, it’s important to note that many Black Americans remained subjected to slavery long after 19 June 1865. Those informed by Granger were far from the last to be freed on American soil.

The emancipation proclamation did not apply to border states still in the Union at the time, and that meant that remaining slaves would not be liberated until the adoption of the 13th Amendment nearly six months later, which holds some controversy today with a loophole involving involuntary servitude. A more in depth explanation of that can be found in Ava Duvernay’s documentary, 13th (on Netflix and now free on Youtube). I highly recommend it!


The Juneteenth Holiday

The original celebration became an annual one, and was celebrated by praying and bringing families together. In some celebrations on this day, men and women who had been enslaved, and their descendants, made an annual pilgrimage back to Galveston. Celebrations reached new heights in 1872, when a group of African-American ministers and businessmen in Houston purchased 10 acres of land and created Emancipation Park, named in honor of their freedom.

More than 200 official events commemorate Juneteenth in cities and towns across the US, and the world. Milwaukee, Philadelphia and Buffalo, NY are home to the country’s three largest annual festivals, featuring everything from parades to “Miss Juneteenth Day” pageants.

The 2019 Juneteenth Parade makes its way down 52nd Street in West Philadelphia. Photo courtesy of Brad Larrison/WHYY News

Just like for the Fourth of July, food and drink have long been central to Juneteenth celebrations, barbecue being a common cuisine served at picnics and parades. A 2015 Texas Monthly article about the historical connection between food and Juneteenth advised that the best way to celebrate “this thoroughly Texas-rooted holiday, [is to] do it with some barbecue.” Another common sight at Juneteenth celebrations is red-colored food and drink, such as red punch and red velvet cake. It’s believed that the classic color symbolizes blood lost during the struggle for emancipation. Culinary historian and food writer Michael Twitty explains on his blog Afroculinaria that the practice of eating red foods “may owe its existence to the enslaved Yoruba and Kongo brought to Texas in the 19th century”. For both of these cultures, the color red is the embodiment of spiritual power and transformation. Accounts of drinking red lemonade or red soda water were also generally mentioned in early accounts of Juneteenth celebrations.


Why Is Juneteenth So Important This Year?

At a time when the country grapples with its long-standing history of systemic racism, as well as the fate of its numerous Confederate monuments, flags and symbols amid the nationwide protests against police brutality and racism, Juneteenth is getting recognition on much bigger platforms. A growing list of corporations have even announced they will now recognize Juneteenth as a paid holiday.

New York declares Juneteenth a holiday for state employees. Photo courtesy of whec.com

Following the killing of George Floyd, thousands of people around the U.S. have poured onto the streets in protest. Floyd’s name, as well as the names of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, David McAtee and others, have become rallying cries for change across the country, re-energizing the Black Lives Matter movement. This time around, change and intervention has come in waves unlike any other time in recent memory. In Minneapolis, officials have banned the use of chokeholds and strangleholds by police, and said officers must intervene and report any use of unauthorized force. Democrats in Congress unveiled sweeping legislation targeting racial discrimination by the police. Companies across different platforms have publicly voiced their support of the BLM movement and are putting their money where their mouth is.


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“I think Juneteenth feels a little different now,” said Mark Anthony Neal, African-American studies scholar at Duke University, “It’s an opportunity for folks to kind catch their breath about what has been this incredible pace of change and shifting that we’ve seen over the last couple of weeks.”

Photo courtesy of cnn.com

Last year, the US Senate passed a resolution recognizing it as a national holiday, but it has not yet been approved in the House. Voter mobilization nonprofit, NextGen America is circulating an online petition calling on Congress to recognize Juneteenth as a national holiday. This year, Juneteenth “may hold more significance for a lot of people because of the social unrest and racial upheaval that’s taking place.” said Julian Hayter, historian and associate professor at the University of Richmond in Virginia. “If the things that are happening right now have any significance, I think it might be the first time where people recognize the importance of this holiday outside the African American community and more as an American point of reflection”.

To see Juneteenth events in Jersey City check out our event calendar!

Adia Atwell
Author: Adia Atwell