Understanding The Significance Of Juneteenth

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Juneteenth is the oldest celebration honoring the end of slavery in the United States (Credit:Galveston.com)

June 19, 2020, marks the 155th anniversary of Juneteenth — a mashup of June and nineteenth — the oldest-known celebration commemorating the end of slavery in the United States. It was on this day in 1865 when the last American slaves — a group of people in Texas — finally learned that slavery had been abolished and that they were free.

The chain of events leading to this historic day began with on January 1, 1863, when President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. It stated: "I do order and declare that all persons held as slaves within said designated States, and parts of States, are, and henceforward shall be free; and that the Executive government of the United States, including the military and naval authorities thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of said persons."

President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863 (Credit: Battlefields.org)

The decree, issued amid the American Civil War (1861-1865), legally freed millions of enslaved people in the 11 Confederate States — Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia. However, the Union-loyal border states of Delaware, Maryland, Missouri, and Kentucky were exempted and continued to practice slavery. The 13th Amendment, passed by Congress on January 31, 1865, and ratified on December 6, 1865, closed the loophole, abolishing slavery across the United States.

The two laws freed all but the 250,000 enslaved people in Texas who had only heard unconfirmed rumors about the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation. It was not until June 19, 1865 — about three months after the Civil War ended on April 9, 1865, and almost two and a half years since President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation — that Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger of the Union Army arrived in Galveston, Texas, and announced General Order No. 3.

It stated: "The people of Texas are informed that in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired laborer."

A portion from the handwritten General Order No. 3 issued by Union Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger on June 19, 1865, that led to the Juneteenth holiday in Texas (National Archives/National Archives )

A year later, on June 19, 1866, the former slaves celebrated their new freedom with community cookouts, dances, and prayers, and Juneteenth was born. Over time, Emancipation Day, or Black Independence Day, as it is also called, has been observed in varying degrees in most US states and was even declared a holiday in Texas in 1980. However, it has been poorly understood outside of the African American community and overshadowed by the July 4th Independence Day celebration.

But the recent outcry against police abuse of African Americans and the growing awareness of systemic racism in US businesses and institutions has brought forth the national significance of Juneteenth. In the weeks leading to the day, many American companies, including Twitter and Nike, declared June 19 a paid holiday for all employees. Earlier this week, three governors — New York's Andrew Cuomo, Virginia's Ralph Northam, and Pennsylvania's Tom Wolf — signed orders making Juneteenth a holiday for state workers starting 2021. On June 19, 2020, New York Mayor de Blasio went one step further by making it a citywide and public school holiday starting next year. "We'll work with all the unions to work through the plan, give this day the importance and recognition it deserves," Mr. de Blasio said. "Every city worker, every student will have an opportunity to reflect the meaning of our history and the truth."

An Emancipation Day celebration in Richmond, Virginia, in 1905 (Credit: VCU Libraries / Public domain)

While this is a great start, it is not enough for 93-year-old Opal Lee, who has been campaigning to make Juneteenth a national holiday for over four decades. On Friday, June 19, 2020, the Fort Worth, Texas, resident continued her fight by marching 2.5 miles down West Lancaster Avenue — a distance symbolizing the 2.5 years it took for slaves in Texas to realize they had been freed. Lee has also taken her cause online with a petition for a million signatures on Change.org. So far, over 600,000 people have signed up, and the numbers are increasing by the minute.

Peniel Joseph, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin's Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affair is also a proponent of June 19 being a national holiday. In his June 13, 2020, op-ed for CNN, the expert wrote: "A national holiday commemorating Juneteenth would spur not only conversation about the origins of our current racial and political conflicts, but would also prompt vitally necessary education about white supremacy and its manifestations in policies and political actions that are anti-Black, anti-democratic and anti-human."

Resources: Vox.com, Patheous.com, LAtimes.com, NBCnews.com

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76 Comments
  • goodgurl
    goodgurlMonday, September 21, 2020 at 12:34 pm
    we all have equal lives, not just white people like me
    • 12o409848
      12o409848Sunday, July 19, 2020 at 2:17 pm
      JUSTICE FOR BREONNA TAYLOR AND GEORGE FLOYD!!!!!!
      • 11008800
        11008800Tuesday, July 14, 2020 at 8:39 am
        #BLACK LIVES MATTER. Even though our color is different, doesn't mean we can't be treated the same way.
        • orangehamster
          orangehamsterMonday, July 13, 2020 at 9:15 am
          # All lives matter We just gotta learn how to except one another :)
          • coolvae
            coolvaeWednesday, August 5, 2020 at 12:10 pm
            cool and CrAzY!!!!!
            • 12o409848
              12o409848Sunday, July 19, 2020 at 2:18 pm
              #blacklivesmatter :)
            • orangehamster
              orangehamsterMonday, July 13, 2020 at 9:13 am
              #all lives matter We need to stop this crazy stuff and just learn how to except one another :)
              • starlight6457
                starlight6457Thursday, July 30, 2020 at 7:05 am
                More like your people need to stop their lynching, and burning my people on crosses. They need to learn how to accept others.
              • orangehamster
                orangehamsterMonday, July 13, 2020 at 9:06 am
                I get that Black Lives Matter, but everyone's life matters. You don't see other races saying that there lives matter...
                • starlight6457
                  starlight6457Thursday, July 30, 2020 at 7:07 am
                  That's because black people have been having more racial abuse then others. That's why they created " All lives cant matter until Black lives can.
                  • 12o409848
                    12o409848Sunday, July 19, 2020 at 2:15 pm
                    yes, but black lives are specially targeted to racism and police are killing innocent black people.
                  • imacorgi
                    imacorgiThursday, July 9, 2020 at 7:53 pm
                    My great something Nicholas Gilman signed the declaration of independence
                  • imacorgi
                    imacorgiThursday, July 9, 2020 at 7:47 pm
                    Can we just stop the riots already people can have opinions and yes black lives matter can we stop protesting already!?👨🏻❤👩🏾
                    • orangehamster
                      orangehamsterMonday, July 13, 2020 at 9:17 am
                      I agree
                      • orangehamster
                        orangehamsterMonday, July 13, 2020 at 9:13 am
                        I agree with you!
                        • orangehamster
                          orangehamsterMonday, July 13, 2020 at 9:14 am
                          This is all crazy. First COVID-19, then protests?
                        • orangehamster
                          orangehamsterMonday, July 13, 2020 at 9:04 am
                          I agree with you! We should just stop all this crazy stuff
                        • thamy16
                          thamy16Thursday, July 9, 2020 at 4:23 pm
                          #Black Lives Matter #justice #BLM #juneteenth #End of Slavery👊
                          • wolfieland
                            wolfielandThursday, July 9, 2020 at 9:24 am
                            NEVER FORGET THE BLACK #justice #blm #BLACK LIVES MATTER!
                            • thamy16
                              thamy16Thursday, July 9, 2020 at 4:20 pm
                              I hear you!👏