- Freed slaves first celebrated Juneteenth on June 19, 1865.
- Texas declared Juneteenth a state holiday on January 1, 1980.
- Thirty-six states recognize or observe Juneteenth as a holiday.
Barbecuing, sipping strawberry soda and enjoying a picnic--these are some of the rituals that mark Juneteenth, an annual celebration of the emancipation of American slaves that takes place on June 19. Juneteenth began as a local celebration in Texas, but since the 1970s, a movement has been under way to make Juneteenth an official national holiday or day of observance.
President Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, which freed all slaves in the states rebelling against the Union, became law on January 1, 1863. Many slaves in the Confederacy heard of this presidential decree by eavesdropping on slave owners, through an encounter with a Union soldier 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 General Gordon Granger entered Galveston, Texas on June 19, 1865, he announced that all of Texas's 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's slaves were in the dark about their emancipation, even in June, over a month after the end of the Civil War. Some have suggested that a courier, on his way to Texas to spread the news of the Emancipation Proclamation, was killed before he could deliver the news (slaves organized among themselves to send out messengers to spread the word). Others have proposed that Texas slave owners wanted to plant one more cotton crop and so delayed freeing their slaves.
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's 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.
In 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 January 1, 1980, Texas was the first state to observe Juneteeth as a holiday.
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.
- Greene, Meg. Into the Land of Freedom: African Americans in Reconstruction. Minneapolis: Twenty-First Century Books, 2004.
- McCalope, Michelle. "Juneteenth: Celebrating African American Independence Day." The Crisis. (May/June 2001): 32-34.
- "Mississippi Now the 36th State to Recognize Juneteenth." Press release. Available at: http://www.njof.org/Mississippi.html.
- Tscheschlok, Eric. "Juneteenth." In Slavery in the United States: A Social, Political, and Historical Encyclopedia, Volume 2. Ed. Junius P. Rodriguez. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2007.
- Wiggins, William H., Jr. "Juneteenth: A Red Spot Day on the Texas Calendar." In Juneteenth Texas: Essays in African-American Folklore. Ed. Francis Edward Abernethy. Denton, TX: University of North Texas Press, 1996.