The joy of Juneteenth: America’s long and uneven march from slavery to freedom



Illustration by Temi Coker for The Washington Post

On June 19, 1865, Union Army Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger stepped onto a balcony in Galveston, Tex. — two months after the Civil War had ended — and announced that more than 250,000 enslaved people in Texas were free. President Abraham Lincoln had freed them two and a half years earlier in his Emancipation Proclamation, but since Texas never fell to Union troops in battle, they’d remained in bondage.

The newly emancipated responded with cries of joy and prayers of gratitude — a celebration that became known as Juneteenth. Black Texans marked the day each year with parades and picnics, music and fine clothes. The gatherings grew through the aborted promise of Reconstruction, through racial terror and Jim Crow, and through the Great Depression, with a major revival in the 1980s and 1990s.

During the summer of 2020, amid the racial-justice protests following the murder of George Floyd, millions of White Americans became aware of Juneteenth for the first time. Some companies announced they would give employees the day off on Juneteenth, and momentum grew to make it a national holiday. Last summer, the U.S. did just that, as President Biden signed a bipartisan bill into law on June 17.

“Great nations don’t ignore their most painful moments. They embrace them,” Biden said during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House. “Great nations don’t walk away. We come to terms with mistakes we made. And remembering those moments, we begin to heal and grow stronger.”

[Three stirring stories of how enslaved people gained their freedom]

But why celebrate nationally something that happened in a single state? Why not Dec. 18, the day in 1865 the 13th Amendment was proclaimed and the last enslaved people in the United States were freed? Or Jan. 1, the day in 1863 that Lincoln made his momentous proclamation, setting a course for the nation from which it could not retreat?

Why Juneteenth? Not only because “all the major currents of American history flow through Texas” — as Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Annette Gordon-Reed writes in her new book, “On Juneteenth” — but also because, as Black Texans moved across the country, they brought their day of jubilation with them. And embracing that moment has become a fitting way to mark the end of a war fought to preserve slavery.

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At the start of the Civil War, these states still had legalized slavery. Most joined the Confederacy. Some were border states that remained loyal to the Union. In New Jersey, a gradual abolition law passed in 1804 — so gradual that the 1860 U.S. Census counted 18 people as “slaves.” The state government called them “apprentices for life.”

Congress abolished slavery in the District of Columbia on April 16, 1862. Nine months later, on Jan. 1, 1863, Lincoln declared enslaved people in the Confederacy forever free — though slavery remained in effect on the ground. States loyal to the Union were exempt, as were Union-controlled parts of Louisiana, Virginia and Tennessee, but many enslaved people in those areas escaped to effective freedom as early as May 1861 in places such as Fort Monroe, Va.

Enforcement of the Emancipation Proclamation generally followed battle lines, encompassing all of the Confederacy except Texas by the end of the war. Four states abolished slavery by state action before the end of the war: Maryland (Nov. 1, 1864), Missouri (Jan. 11, 1865), the new state of West Virginia (effective Feb. 3, 1865) and Tennessee (Feb. 22, 1865).

On June 19, 1865, in Galveston, Tex., Granger issued General Order No. 3, freeing all enslaved people in Texas, in accordance with the Emancipation Proclamation issued two and a half years earlier.

The 13th Amendment banning slavery was officially proclaimed on Dec. 18, 1865, after enough states had ratified it on Dec. 6. By then, the only enslaved people waiting to be freed were in Delaware, Kentucky and New Jersey.

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About this story

Reporting by Gillian Brockell. Graphics by Kate Rabinowitz. Illustrations by Temi Coker. Photo research and editing by Karly Domb Sadof. Design and development by Frank Hulley-Jones. Editing by Lynda Robinson, Courtney Kan and Krissah Thompson. Additional editing and production by J.J. Evans, Sabby Robinson, Amber Ferguson, Lauren Tierney, Greg Manifold and Marian Liu.

Audio source: City Channel 4 - Iowa City

Map sources: Washington Post reporting, “Freedom’s Delay: America’s Struggle for Emancipation, 1776–1865” by Allen Carden and “The Ragged Road to Abolition: Slavery and Freedom in New Jersey, 1775-1865” by James J. Gigantino II.

Gillian Brockell is a staff writer for The Washington Post's history blog, Retropolis. She has been at The Post since 2013 and previously worked as a video editor.
Kate Rabinowitz is an assignment editor on the graphics team of The Washington Post
Frank Hulley-Jones is a designer and developer for The Washington Post. He produces interactive pieces to help audiences engage with complex and important news stories.