Photo of College Hall Bell Tower
University News

What to Know About Juneteenth, According to This History Expert

American History expert explains how June 19 became a day of celebration and a federal holiday

Posted in: Faculty Voices

Graphic with green, red and yellow background, and the words "Freedom Day, Juneteenth, June 19"

More than 150 years after slavery officially ended in Texas, President Joe Biden signed a bill passed by Congress in 2021 to set aside Juneteenth (June 19), as a federal holiday.

How did we get here, and what is the significance of Juneteenth? Here, Leslie Wilson, professor of History, explains.

What are the origins of Juneteenth and what is its significance?

Juneteenth is the date (June 19, 1865) when General Gordon Granger of the U.S. Union Army came to the Ashton Villa in Galveston, Texas, to announce that the Union Army had arrived in the state to depose the Confederate Army in the state.

For many this was seen as one of the acts that brought the Civil War to an end. One of the three military orders General Granger read that day restated the terms of the Emancipation Proclamation by informing the citizens and enslaved people in the state that slavery was abolished and that the slaves were now free. This order, Order Number Three reads as follows:

“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 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. The Freedmen are advised to remain at their present homes, and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts; and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.”

This declaration officially ended slavery in Texas and turned enslaved men and women into workers. Their masters were transformed into employers. What was not clear were the terms of housing, as they were told to return to their homes and work for wages. In essence, they were turned into landed service workers or laborers.

How is Juneteenth observed? What are some ways an individual can observe the holiday?

Although there were celebrations that day, the first official Juneteenth celebrations were held on June 19, 1866. Juneteenth started in Galveston and Houston, and quickly spread throughout the west.

The Juneteenth festivities have been held on June 19 ever since. Over the decades, Juneteenth has meant barbecue, red velvet cake, ice cream, red punch, watermelon and other food items. There has been dancing, music and bands, singing, praise worship, rodeos, sporting activities, beauty contests (Miss Juneteenth) and parades.

Juneteenth became a state holiday in Texas in 1979. It was the first African American holiday celebrated before the celebrations honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the 1970s. It became a national holiday in 2021, and there is also a Juneteenth flag.

What’s the impact of Juneteenth being declared a federal holiday?

Juneteenth is seen as the symbolic end to slavery in the United States. It is not the official date for the end of the war or the end of slavery, but rather the moment that people in the west chose to celebrate the beginning of the transition from enslavement to freedom.

It was a long road: General Granger’s men needed to protect the integrity of his order. Other Union troops had to travel further west to parts of Oklahoma, Arizona and New Mexico spreading the word that the Confederacy had been defeated and that slavery was over.

The spiritual connection, which makes Juneteenth a lasting holiday, is that when Texans moved and brought the holiday with them others embraced it along with their own local emancipation days. In many locations, people celebrated the local emancipation day and Juneteenth. However, Juneteenth has more staying power. For example, in New York and New Jersey the Emancipation Proclamation is the original day of freedom, but Juneteenth has long overtaken it.

Juneteenth commemorates the emancipation of enslaved African Americans but how did it mark just the beginning of the fight for equality?

General Granger’s order does not speak of freedom and equality. It introduces abolition, but not freedom. The enslaved are tied to the land of their former masters. Decades will go by before true freedom emerges in Texas and other southern states.

By the 1920s, when Juneteenth was extremely popular, there were race riots in Texas and Oklahoma. African American pride is strong and Juneteenth is used to mobilize people to fight for equality. The pride associated with Juneteenth ebbs and flows, but this is what gives the holiday staying power.

In the 1960s and 1970s Juneteenth was associated with civil rights, equality and voting rights. It is a visualization of Black Power. It also draws strength from the African American church as an affirmation of struggle and survival.