The joy of Juneteenth: America’s long and uneven march from slavery to freedom
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.
How enslaved people gained their freedom
There was no one moment when freedom came to the enslaved in America. When President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, the clouds did not part, the sun did not shine beams of freedom, and the shackles of slavery locked for nearly 250 years did not magically fall away. The truth is so much more complicated. Read more
‘A moment of indescribable joy’
Juneteenth has its roots in the long-awaited moment of emancipation in Texas, where more than 250,000 enslaved Black people received news on June 19, 1865 — more than two years after President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation — that they were free. Read more
Cries and cheers in the nation’s capital when the enslaved were freed
To commemorate April 16, the District every year celebrates Emancipation Day, when the city’s enslaved men, women and children were freed — nearly eight months before Lincoln issued his famous Emancipation Proclamation. The District would become the only jurisdiction in the United States to compensate enslavers for freeing people. Read more
She sued her enslaver for reparations and won. Her descendants never knew
After the Civil War, Henrietta Wood made history by pursuing an audacious lawsuit against the man who had kidnapped her back into slavery. Yet the story of Wood’s quest for justice and the resulting victory was lost to her own descendants, including Danielle Blackman. Read more
The crucial ballots that ended slavery in Maryland
The vote was a cliffhanger, and in the end, 375 absentee ballots cast by soldiers made the difference. Thus did the voters of Maryland narrowly adopt a new constitution in 1864 that, uniquely among border states still in the Union, freed tens of thousands of enslaved men, women and children. Read more
Two families — one Black, one White — shared a harrowing history
Slavery unexpectedly connected the Kings and the Beckers. Both families have embraced the opportunity to learn about each other’s past with more clarity, despite layers of discomfort and awkwardness. “Having taught high school social studies and having spent my life in education,” John B. King Jr. said, “I thought about how illustrative this experience is of our need to do a better job of teaching in this country about the history of African Americans and the institution of slavery.” Read more
What Juneteenth tells us about the value of Black life in America
Gen. Gordon Granger delivered an order in Galveston, Tex., that emancipated 250,000 enslaved people on June 19, 1865. Granger’s clarifying words on the value of Black life in America distinguishes Juneteenth as emancipation day. But our ability to live up to that ideal as a nation is best measured in the days, weeks, and years that followed.
The struggle to memorialize a brutal lynching
The battle to approve a historical marker in Sherman echoes the controversial push in Texas and conservative legislatures to limit the teaching of racism in public schools. In 1930, George Hughes was lynched by a White mob that burned down the county courthouse and attacked the town’s Black business district. Read more
The joys and struggle of Juneteenth
Historian Annette Gordon-Reed grew up celebrating Juneteenth with her family and community in Texas. While the holiday started in the Lone Star state in 1866, it has grown in scope and prominence with celebrations across the country. Listen to Post Reports