Last Updated on June 19, 2023 by BVN
The Juneteenth holiday marks the public commemoration of slavery’s abolition in the United States.
Since the end of the Civil War, Black folks have gathered annually to remember Emancipation Day and to celebrate their lives as free citizens. Yet, the history of Juneteenth shows that the holiday has always been more than a day of public remembrance.
Since the earliest Freedom Day celebrations, African Americans have used the festivals as a space to demonstrate their active engagement in U.S. political culture and to expand the boundaries of their freedom and citizenship. In many ways, the story of Juneteenth is the story of Black Americans making their own freedom while pushing the country to fulfill its promises of equality.
On June 19, 1865, in one of the final acts abolishing chattel slavery, enslaved African Americans in Texas received official notification that slavery was over. As historian Shennette Garrett-Scott has noted of the postponed announcement, “freedom delayed was just as sweet” for enslaved people in Texas. During the final years of the Civil War, thousands of enslavers in the deep South relocated to Texas in attempt to avoid liberating their human property. Some had to be forced by Union troops to emancipate their enslaved workers, but with relatively few Civil War battles taking place west of the Mississippi River, the Union was slow to arrive in Texas. Texas’s remote western location made it easier for southern whites to avoid the consequences of the Civil War, but it also placed Black folks further away from the “grapevine telegraph” that might have informed them earlier of slavery’s abolition.
An uneven path toward freedom
On June 19, 1865, Union General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas to issue his General Order No. 3, notifying all remaining enslaved persons in Texas of their liberation. This act took place two months after the end of the Civil War and two-and-a-half years after Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, signaling the slow and uneven path toward freedom.
The June Nineteenth date has come to represent the day when all Black people were emancipated, but all enslaved persons were not free on June 19, 1865. In border states outside of the Confederacy, enslaved persons were not fully free until December 1865—six months after Granger gave the order in Texas. Some enslaved persons were emancipated even before the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect in 1863. In Washington D.C., the Emancipation Act of April 1862 liberated enslaved persons the year before Abraham Lincoln’s proclamation went into effect. Still others celebrated emancipation when the opportunity presented itself.
Ambrose Douglass, a formerly enslaved man from North Carolina remembered a continuous cycle of celebration upon seeing Union troops arrive in their town: “I guess we musta celebrated ‘Mancipation about twelve times in Harnett County [NC]. Every time a bunch of No’thern sojers would come through they would tell us we was free and we’d begin celebrating.” Ambrose Douglass’s experience represented one of the earliest moments Black folks made meaning of their emancipation. Those freedom making acts would be repeated by millions of Black people in the years and decades after slavery. Without provisions from the federal government to help establish themselves as free and independent citizens, each freed Black person made their own freedom the best way they could.
Celebration meets resistance
Emancipation Day celebrations were an extension of Black freedom-making practices. As early as 1866, Black folks began gathering to celebrate emancipation, or, Jubilee Day. Early celebrations often took place in Black churches and private spaces, featuring prayers, readings of poems and political speeches. They included food, music and entertainment, including Black Civil War veterans donning their uniforms and parading in front of the cheering crowds. The festivals themselves were public displays of Black liberation and achievement. Event goers often displayed American flags prominently to show pride in their new status as free Americans.
Yet, Emancipation Day celebrations were almost immediately met with resistance. City officials used segregation mandates to foreclose upon African Americans’ efforts to celebrate in public spaces. In some places, local whites enforced noise ordinances to shut down the festivities. In the newspapers, southern whites declared Freedom Day celebrations unpatriotic and potentially dangerous. But Black folks gathered anyway.
In East Texas, freedom colonies and all-Black towns hosted some of the largest Juneteenth celebrations in the South, prompting other states to adopt the June Nineteenth date for Freedom Day celebrations. To avoid trouble with segregation laws, communities held events in churches and other privately-owned spaces instead of assembling in public. Organizers continued to host Juneteenth events despite disapproval by city officials. In Houston in the 1870s, Black community members circumvented the segregation ordinance by purchasing a 10-acre plot which they named Emancipation Park and they carried on with their Juneteenth celebrations as they had before. By continuing to hold Juneteenth celebrations, African Americans insisted on exercising their political rights as free people to assemble together, remembering and celebrating collectively their journey out of slavery. By exercising their rights as free people, African Americans insisted on exercising their rights to Juneteenth celebrations and these events became a space for Black folks to enact their rights as free citizens and to help others make the most of their political rights.
Continuity across generations
Over the years, as African Americans have faced persistent challenges, Juneteenth celebrations have continued to emphasize Black political and social empowerment in the face of injustice and inequality. In the 1890s, with increased efforts to disenfranchise Black male voters, festivals featured booths with information about citizenship and voting rights for African Americans. During the Great Migration of the early twentieth century, when Black folks left the Jim Crow South with hopes of finding greater opportunities in northern and western locales, they brought their Juneteenth traditions with them. The celebrations waxed and waned over the years, often in response to the political condition of Black people at the time. The racial terror of the 1930s prompted fewer communities to celebrate Juneteenth out of fear of a violent backlash. During World War II, when Black soldiers were subjected to racism at home after fighting fascism abroad, a revival of Juneteenth celebrations emphasized the importance of equal rights for all citizens. During the era of the Civil Rights movement, there were fewer celebrations across the country as Juneteenth festivities took a backseat to freedom marches and other efforts by African Americans to organize politically. But after the landmark civil rights legislation of the 1960s, Black communities again celebrated Freedom Day, using Juneteenth as a way to connect past struggles for freedom with their contemporary struggles for full liberation.
In the last forty years, Juneteenth celebrations have continued to respond to political issues affecting the Black community, including the war on drugs, mass incarceration, police and state violence, and efforts to disenfranchise Black citizens. The festivals often still feature booths and events that highlight political rights, self-determination, and education. In 2021, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and a spate of other violent events, the U.S. government made Juneteenth a federal holiday to remind us that the United States is a nation of free citizens. Yet African Americans and many other minoritized people are still fighting to experience the fullness of freedom’s promise.
Living in the wake of slavery, African Americans continue to experience racism and skewed life chances, including poor access to health care, premature death, violence, incarceration, limited access to education, and a host of other political and social issues. A quick glance at Juneteenth events hosted in Southern California this year shows that festivals are again responding to the needs and demands of Black communities. In response to the pandemic and the ongoing threats against Black life, many festivals are prioritizing health and wellness events this year, including mental and physical wellness activities, COVID testing and vaccinations, and self-defense instruction.
Juneteenth continues to be a celebration of Black life and culture while reminding us that the nation still has work to do as the struggle for freedom continues.
Natasha McPherson is an Assistant Professor of African American History at the University of California Riverside. Professor McPherson received her Ph.D. in History from Emory University. Her research examines the lives of southern Black women living in the wake of slavery and Reconstruction. She is currently completing her book manuscript, Women and the Making of Creole New Orleans.