What is Juneteenth and what does it commemorate?

June 14, 2018

What is Juneteenth and why is it an important event in black history? The holiday dates back to June 19, 1865, when Texas slaves were freed well after other black Americans won their liberty. Texas declared Juneteenth a state holiday on Jan. 1, 1980, and today 36 states recognize or observe Juneteenth as a holiday.

Barbecuing, sipping strawberry soda and picnicking are some of the rituals that mark the celebration.

Since the 1970s, a movement has been under way to make Juneteenth an official national holiday or day of observance.

This year Milwaukee will observer Junteenth on Tuesday, June 19, 2018 at 10:00 a.m. – 6:00 p.m. at 19th & Atkinson to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive. This event will include a block party with food, entertainment, a parade and various vendors.

Origins of the holiday

President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, which freed all slaves in the states rebelling against the Union, became law on Jan. 1, 1863. Many slaves in the Confederacy heard of this presidential decree by eavesdropping on slave owners speaking with Union soldiers or by word of mouth. But not all slaves received the news that Lincoln had just turned the Civil War into a moral cause against slavery. This was the case for the slaves living in Texas. They did not hear the news until after the war had already ended. Texas was isolated throughout the war as the Union army had no presence there, and many Confederate slave owners sent their slaves to Texas so that the Union army could not free them.

When Gen. Gordon Granger entered Galveston, Texas, on June 19, 1865, he announced that all Texas slaves were free through an official proclamation (General Order No. 3). The state’s slaves numbered around 200,000, and they responded with jubilation, holding celebrations all over Texas.

Scholars and students of history have speculated as to why Texas slaves were in the dark about their emancipation over a month after the Civil War ended. Some have suggested that a courier, on his way to Texas to spread word about the Emancipation Proclamation, was killed before he could deliver the news.

Slaves organized among themselves to send out messengers. Others have proposed that Texas slave owners wanted to plant one more cotton crop and so delayed freeing their slaves.

Juneteenth celebrations

African Americans in Texas continued to celebrate the anniversary of emancipation on June 19 in subsequent years. They created traditions such as taking a break from work, wearing ornamental and fine clothes as a way of repudiating the ragged clothes worn under slavery and having picnics where everyone contributed a dish. Some Juneteenth celebrants held prayer services and read the proclamation that had been issued by Gen. Granger to Texas slaves.

The tradition of Juneteenth spread to other states, but it remained strongest in Texas. In Houston, a group of African Americans had a fundraiser to build Emancipation Park, which they used to celebrate Juneteenth (segregation had made many parks off-limits to Houston’s African Americans). Another group built Booker T. Washington Park in Mexia, near Waco, for the same purpose.

Decline of Juneteenth

During the Great Depression and the Great Migration, the number of Juneteenth celebrations declined. African Americans living in urban areas often found it hard to get off work for Juneteenth.

During the civil rights period, some African Americans shunned the holiday, not wanting to emphasize the history of slavery and subjugation. It may also have been seen as a less significant holiday as integration was taking place. But in the 1970s, Juneteenth began its comeback as African Americans tried to reclaim their past.

Revival of Juneteenth

In 1979, an African-American state representative from Houston, Al Edwards, proposed that Texas make Juneteenth an official state holiday. His legislation passed, and as of Jan. 1, 1980, Texas was the first state to observe Juneteeth as a holiday.

Juneteenth today

Today, many African Americans across the United States celebrate Juneteenth through the traditions of picnicking and barbecuing but also through prayer services, African arts and crafts sales, concerts and parades. As of 2010, 36 states observe Juneteenth in some way, and groups have been formed to urge the federal government to make Juneteenth a national holiday or day of observance.

Read More About: