Once celebrated largely in Texas, this once-obscure holiday now has renewed national importance. While it did not mark an end to slavery—that wouldn’t come until the Thirteenth Amendment was ratified in December of that year—it has grown into a broader commemoration concerning slavery, freedom, and civil rights.
On June 19, 1865, Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger landed on Galveston Island with more than 2,000 Union troops. He stood at the Headquarters District of Texas in Galveston and read “General Order No. 3”:
The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free.
Black people who heard the news erupted in what Gibbs calls “a moment of indescribable joy.”
Celebrations of Juneteenth — which combines the word June with Nineteenth — began in 1866, a year and a day after Granger’s announcement.
Black men, women and children dressed in their finest attire and gathered to sing spirituals, pray, play baseball and eat. Often the menus included fried chicken, cornbread, greens and handmade strawberry soda.
“The red color of the soda symbolized blood shed during slavery,” Gibbs said.
There would be special invitations for the oldest freed men and women to recount the horrors of slavery and the sweetness of freedom.
“This was partying with purpose — not only for the people to join the celebration but to learn directly from the past,” Gibbs said.
Another powerful ingredient in early Juneteenth celebrations was that the early festivities took place on land owned by black people.
“There was an extra sense of pride,” Gibbs said. “It was a matter of racial pride and uplift to show even in the face of searing racial hatred, ‘We are property owners.’ It showed progress.
Appropriately enough, the original General Order No. 3 was recently rediscovered in the U.S. National Archives, after researchers there were spurred by the recent protests to find it.
A growing number of people are calling for Juneteenth to be a national holiday, as it marks the first major step towards ending the source of human bondage and bringing our society closer to its constitutional ideals.
The New Yorker has a particularly good explanation about why this local holiday is of national relevance:
The Emancipation Proclamation itself had been hedged to balance Northern interests and to incentivize Southern states with at least the possibility of retaining slavery if they rejoined the Union: the order freed only those people enslaved in areas of the country that were rebelling against the federal government. But Texas was in rebellion, and its black population did qualify for freedom on January 1, 1863, when the proclamation took effect. Texas ignored the proclamation, as did the ten other Confederate states. This all indicates a fundamental misunderstanding of the significance of Juneteenth. The fact that slaveholders extracted thirty additional months of uncompensated labor from people who had been bought, sold, and worked to exhaustion, like livestock, throughout their lives is cause for mourning, not celebration. In honoring that moment, we should recognize a moral at the heart of that day in Galveston and in the entirety of American life: there is a vast chasm between the concept of freedom inscribed on paper and the reality of freedom in our lives.
In that regard, Juneteenth exists as a counterpoint to the Fourth of July; the latter heralds the arrival of American ideals, the former stresses just how hard it has been to live up to them. This failure was not exclusive to the South. Northern states generally abolished slavery in the decades after the American Revolution, but many slaveholders there, rather than free the people they held in bondage, sold them to traders in the South, or moved to states where the institution was still legal. The black men, women, and children who heard Granger’s pronouncement a hundred and fifty-five years ago in Galveston were not slaves; they were a barometer of American democracy.
There’s a paradox inherent in the fact that emancipation is celebrated primarily among African-Americans, and that the celebration is rooted in a perception of slavery as something that happened to black people, rather than something that the country committed. The paradox rests on the presumption that the arrival of freedom should be greeted with gratitude, instead of with self-reflection about what allowed it to be deprived in the first place. Emancipation is a marker of progress for white Americans, not black ones.