This coming Saturday marks Juneteenth, the most popular annual celebration of the end of slavery in the United States you’ve never heard of.
Everyone at Clockwise is taking the day off to commemorate Juneteenth and to reflect on Black American history. Here’s a bit of that history.
Contrary to popular belief, the Emancipation Proclamation did not end slavery in the United States. It only freed slaves in Confederate states, in areas liberated by Union troops. Slaves in border states remained legally enslaved until Congress ratified the 13th Amendment.
Slaves in Texas had to wait even longer.
Two and half years after President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, on June 19, 1865, Union soldier General Granger stepped out onto the balcony at Ashton Villa, in Galveston, Texas. There, at the former headquarters of the Army of the Confederate States of America, Granger read General Orders Number Three, informing slaves that the war was over and that they were free.
Texas slaveowners had refused to acknowledge the war was over or give up their slaves. In fact, Texas’ slave population exploded to 250,000 during the Civil War. After the Union captured New Orleans slaveowners in Mississippi, Louisiana and surrounding states brought their slaves to Texas to hide from the Union.
The next year, freed slaves in Texas started celebrating “Jubilee Day'' under the Ashton Villa balcony with barbeque, foot races, horse races, baseball games, spiritual music, and homemade fireworks. They’d cut holes in trees, fill the holes with gunpowder, and set it on fire. But it wasn’t just a celebration - it was a civic gathering. Politicians would deliver stump speeches, and activists would encourage Black Americans to register to vote.
By the early 1900s “Jubilee Day” had become Juneteenth and spread to other states, including Oklahoma, southwest Arkansas, and parts of Louisiana.
Around the same time, between 1882 and 1968, Texas had the third-highest number of lynchings in the US.
As Annette Gordon-Reed put it, “Although important, Granger’s reading of an executive order—an order based upon the will of a President already assassinated, two months earlier, by a man who feared black equality—was only a tiny step toward the work that had to be done.”
From the 1910s to 1930s, large-scale Juneteenth celebrations became less frequent. This was a time of rising nativism, racial terror (e.g., the Red Summer lynchings of 1919-1921), and Jim Crow. Many felt that it wasn’t patriotic to celebrate the end of a dark period in American history.
Shortly before the US entered WWII, Juneteenth saw a renaissance. In 1979, Texas became the first state to recognize Juneteenth as an official holiday. Since then, 41 other states and the District of Columbia have recognized Juneteenth as a state holiday or holiday observance.
“Today, there is a strong movement to make Juneteenth a national holiday,” Gordon-Reed wrote. “If one thinks about it, it is staggering that there is no date commemorating the end of slavery in the United States. On the other hand, I know what my father, were he still alive, would have to say about that: something about counting chickens before they hatch.”
Slavery and racism are not ancient historical artifacts, but ongoing failures to live up to the full promise of the United States of America.
The 13th Amendment abolished slavery, but established a loophole for “criminals.” Today the United States incarcerates a greater percentage of our population than any other country but one. Systemic racism persists in nearly every aspect of American society, including policing, courts, education, healthcare, even land-use regulation.
And as part of that we’re taking Juneteenth off to celebrate how far we’ve come and to recognize how far we still have to go.
A bit of good news: The Senate just passed a bill to make Juneteenth a federal holiday.
If you’re interested in learning more about how to make Juneteenth a national holiday, check out this petition. If you’d like to see scholar Annette Gordon-Reed speak on June 23rd, check out this event. There are many online Juneteenth events coming up to join.