Around the country you will find Juneteenth celebrations bringing together large crowds, most often people of African-American descent, for food and festivities. If you attend one of these celebrations, the spirit of hope and joy is easy to sense. But many people only have a vague idea of why Juneteenth began, what the celebration is all about, or why it is still important today.
Setting the Stage for Juneteenth
The physical map of the United States was altered dozens of times during the 19th century. As the Spanish relinquished territories in North America, there were nearly constant battles reshaping the former Spanish lands.
From 1836 to 1846, the Republic of Texas was a sovereign nation. The borders of this republic evolved, with Texans claiming parts of Colorado, New Mexico, and even Wyoming, but the territorial expansion of the United States at the time soon helped define Texas as we know it today.
In 1846, Texas joined the United States. With entry into the Union, a flood of people moved into the fertile lands of Texas. Most came from southern states, and they brought their skill at growing cotton. They also brought the slave labor that made cotton farming successful. The traditions of the Spanish-influenced society adapted to this population growth, as well as the practices of many neighboring states. Texas became a valuable producer of crops for the United States.
The nation was growing fast, and issues of slavery and economics were driving political change. As the 1860 election results unfolded and it became apparent that Abraham Lincoln was winning the electoral college vote, many states wanted to withdraw from the Union. In 1861, a mere fifteen years after becoming a state, Texas seceded from the Union and joined other southern states to form the Confederate States of America. Lincoln and the U.S. Congress did not recognize their secession, and a civil war became inevitable.
Because the northern states accepted waves of European immigrants and increased industrialization, their economy was not closely tied to slavery. Many states were considering prohibiting slavery. The Constitution at the time did not give Congress the authority to end slavery—states’ rights were hotly debated. Lincoln struggled to preserve the Union, and came to realize that emancipation was closely tied to that goal. While Congress banned the practice of slavery on federal land, other attempts to find solutions to the issue of ending slavery had failed. On January 1, 1863, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, abolishing the institution of slavery in the rebel states of the Confederacy. This made the freeing slaves an objective of Union soldiers as they moved through the Confederate States.
Why Did Juneteenth Start, and When?
Throughout the southern states, slaves were hearing of the Emancipation Proclamation as Union soldiers pushed back Confederate troops. But the westernmost areas of the Confederacy were not reached until the end of the war. On June 19, 1865—almost two and a half years after it was issued—Union soldiers landed at Galveston, Texas, and brought news of the Emancipation Proclamation. Though former slaves were given the option to work for their former masters as employees, most headed north to freedom or east to find family members.
This new freedom quickly took on a celebratory aspect. Former slaves came together in groups, bringing food and dreams of what their new status would mean to them. All over Texas, they marked their freedom with food and song. They shed their field clothes in favor of their masters’ styles. June 19 quickly became Juneteenth—the day of freedom!
For some, these celebrations became annual events, bringing families and old neighbors back together. In Texas, they were often highlighted with BBQ and rodeos. Similar celebrations could be found in African-American communities across the country, with picnics, music, and storytelling. But by the 1900s, Juneteenth faded. People considered the enactment of the Emancipation Proclamation in January 1863 the moment when the slaves were freed, and that’s how it was taught in public education.
What Does Juneteenth Mean Today?
In 1980, Texas became the first state to declare Juneteenth an official state holiday. As of 2014, forty-three states observe Juneteenth. Thousands of Juneteenth gatherings happen across the country. Today these events not only mark emancipation of the slaves, but stand as a testament to African-American achievement. They also celebrate the importance of all people and respect for all cultures. Some participants organize on Juneteenth to try to help people all over the world who face slavery and oppression. You can find Juneteenth events in several other countries. Sometimes these honor American history, but often they tie the story of liberation from slavery to local history.
Juneteenth also means a celebration of community—a time to plan for the future, strengthen relationships, and welcome neighbors and strangers. For most, it means coming together to share thoughts, songs, foods, dreams, progress, and history.
Do you celebrate Juneteenth? If so, how?
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All Different Now: Juneteenth, the First Day of Freedom by Angela Johnson
A Child’s History of Texas by Sarah Jackson
Secession from the Texas State Historical Society