Melissa Stuckey is an assistant professor at Elizabeth City State University in North Carolina who teaches African American history. Below she explains this special day’s beginnings and traditions throughout history:
The last state emancipation day
Texas was the last Confederate state to have slavery abolished. During the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing enslaved people living in areas that were part of the Confederacy and were still fighting on January 1, 1863. But he had no power to free those in Confederate states, which had their own president, Jefferson Davis. Enslaved people gradually became free as Union troops defeated Confederate troops in those states during the next two years. “Florida has its own emancipation day,” Stuckey said, “but Juneteenth is special because it’s the last one.” (Slavery did not end in all border and Union states until the 13th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified in December 1865.)
Announcement based on proclamation
It is often mistakenly said that Granger read the Emancipation Proclamation to announce enslaved people’s freedom in Galveston. “The statement [Granger read] is based on the Emancipation Proclamation,” Stuckey said.
Granger’s proclamation asked that enslaved people stay on the plantations and transition to becoming paid employees. “Gordon Granger’s intention was to keep things stable,” Stuckey said. But freedom means doing what you want. “As [formerly enslaved people] became free, they immediately started to do things that marked freedom for them,” she said. This included leaving to find family members who had escaped or been forced to leave the plantation because White owners had sold or moved them to other properties.
Churches buy land for celebrations
In the 19th-century Southern United States, churches were the center of the Black community and supported African Americans in a racist society. “Even as slavery is ending, a culture of separation, segregation, is growing. Part of that is about the public space and who gets to use [it],” Stuckey said.
Churches bought land for the Black community to use that would be the sites of emancipation celebrations. One example is Emancipation Park in Houston, Texas, which still hosts Juneteenth celebrations.
Children were the focus of the fests
Early Juneteenth celebrations focused on celebrating Black children through baby contests or having children pose for photos. “They were children of freedom. It was really important to their parents and grandparents to really celebrate that they now had generations of children who were not enslaved people,” Stuckey said.
Despite holiday, racism continues
Beginning in the 1930s, Juneteenth was commercialized with people buying things and going places to celebrate. Many businesses — such as amusement parks — that usually excluded Black people, would be open to them on Juneteenth. “People begin to start thinking critically during this time, where we are segregated and or excluded except one day of the year and that’s the day African Americans celebrate freedom,” Stuckey said.
In the years leading up to the civil rights movement, Juneteenth celebrations became less popular and shifted to being about demanding equality.