A Brief History: The Significance of Juneteenth

When President Biden signed legislation last year that made Juneteenth (June 19) a federal holiday, it served as the historic acknowledgement of a day celebrated by Black Americans since the 1800s, yet one that had only seen a noticeable increase in the public consciousness since the summer of 2020. Even then, a 2021 Gallup survey showed that more than 60 percent of Americans knew “nothing at all” or only “a little bit” about Juneteenth.

Also called “Juneteenth Independence Day,” “Freedom Day,” or “Emancipation Day” (among other names), Juneteenth is the annual commemoration of the end of slavery in the United States after the Civil War. On June 19, 1865, Union general Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, with General Orders, No. 3, declaring:

“… in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, ‘all slaves are free.’ This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor.”

This came about two months after the war’s official end following surrender by the Confederate Army at Appomattox Court House, and more than two and a half years (Jan. 1, 1863) after President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.

But why did Juneteenth become a centralized moment in Galveston? As Stanford Libraries explains in this helpful resource list, “news and reality of freedom had been slow to reach the farthest corners of the former Confederacy.” The Washington Post also notes that while Texas newspapers had reported the Emancipation Proclamation when it happened, local leaders kept enslaved people in bondage until federal soldiers actually arrived.

With freedom finally realized for the 250,000 enslaved people of Texas, “it was from that moment that Juneteenth would be born,” cites the Galveston Historical Foundation, noting its subsequent history of speeches, songs, picnics, parades, and art exhibits in celebrations around the country. And yet, as the Equal Justice Initiative powerfully reminds us, “Juneteenth does not denote a struggle completed or a finish line reached. Black Americans faced many threats to their liberty and their lives in the years after the Civil War, and face continued injustice still.”

“It’s important to understand Juneteenth in that larger context,” said Felicia Smith, Racial Justice and Social Equity Librarian at Stanford. “It’s why in my role, I always try to explain the history, but also point out how this all has ramifications today. From Juneteenth to Emmett Till to Tamir Rice to George Floyd, that feeling of not being safe, of not truly being free, of not being intentionally told something important about the past, is always swirling around for Black people.”

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