A Look Back | Juneteenth

Juneteenth began as a commemoration of the day一June 19, 1865一when Major General Gordon Granger finally informed the enslaved population of Galveston, TX of their freedom, 2 ½ years after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, which should have marked the end of slavery in the Confederate States. The reality of civil war, however, meant that most enslaved people of the South remained in bondage until the end of the American Civil War, when Southern territory returned to Northern jurisdiction. One year later, on June 19, 1866, the first Juneteenth celebrations occurred in Texas. Celebrants held prayer meetings along with the singing of spirituals, and they also took the opportunity to rejoice in their newfound freedom by wearing new clothes, participating in festivals with food, music and dance, along with educational activities as another part of the festivities.

For many years, Juneteenth remained a holiday observed primarily by the African American community, and particularly those of Texan origins. However, greater public interest in the holiday grew along with the 2020 protests over the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other Black victims of police brutality. Black Americans continued to lead the charge for Juneteenth to become a national holiday, including Opal Lee, a 95-year-old former educator whose annual 2.5 mile walks commemorate the 2 ½ years between the Emancipation Proclamation and the Juneteenth announcement (See opalswalk.com). On June 17, 2021, Juneteenth finally became a federally-recognized national holiday in the United States, with June 19, 2022 marking the second official nationwide Juneteenth celebration.

Contemporary and historical figures argue that, while there is a celebratory aspect to Juneteenth, the holiday should also serve as a moment of reflection and mourning for the years of freedom denied to African Americans throughout United States history. The earliest expressions of this sentiment predate even the end of slavery, for example in Frederick Douglass’ famous 1852 speech, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” (available to read for free as part of the public domain). Not only, Douglass argued, was July 4th an inadequate celebration of American “freedom,” but it was an exclusive celebration, only true and only accessible to white Americans. Later Juneteenth festivities, then, exist in this context of ever-evolving expressions of freedom in the United States, whose mission to achieve perfect democracy is far from complete.

We encourage you to interact with the resources below to learn more about historical and current experiences of Juneteenth commemoration.