As the first new federal holiday to be created since Dr. Martin Luther King Day was recognized as a federal holiday in 1983, Juneteenth represents a unique celebration of American history as a second day of independence.
What exactly is Juneteenth?
Juneteenth marks the historic date of June 19, 1865, when the African-American slaves in Texas were freed by executive decree.
So, does Juneteenth make the end of slavery in America? I though slavery ended with the Civil War.
Yes and no. It’s important to keep in mind that emancipation of slaves during the Civil War period of American history occurred at uneven time periods, and even the end of the Civil War itself did not result in the immediate freeing of all slaves.
The first official step to ending slavery occurred when President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which was designed to free the slaves living and working in the Confederate states actively rebelling against the United States, on January 1, 1863.
However, the Civil War did not officially end until April 9, 1865, so there was a two-period when the slave-holding states did not immediately agree to grant freedom to their slaves, either out of defiance or spite. In fact, the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution abolishing slavery and involuntarily servitude did not pass until January 31, 1865.
Wait, if the Thirteenth Amendment passed in January 1865, why were there still slaves in Texas in June?
Two big reasons exist for that delay. First, remember the Civil War did not officially end until April 1865, and the Confederate states refused to recognize the Emancipation Proclamation since they were still in open rebellion against the government that made the proclamation.
Second, even when the Confederate states lost the Civil War, many of the slave-holding states were slow to recognize the anti-slavery laws that had been announced by the Emancipation Proclamation and fortified by the Thirteenth Amendment. They were so slow to recognize the laws, in fact, that Union General Gordon Granger had to march into the Lone Star State after the Civil War had ended and issue General Order No. 3 to make sure it was understood that slavery would no longer be tolerated in America.
Since then, Juneteenth, which combines “June” and “nineteenth,” has been celebrated as the end of slavery in America since Texas was the last Confederate state to get the news, though it should be noted a Union General still had to march into the Lone Star State to make sure it was understood that slavery would no longer be tolerated in America.
So then Juneteenth really did end slavery?
Mostly. Historians generally agree the last of the slaves in America were finally freed a year or so after the first Juneteenth occurred. The Juneteenth celebrations died down for a while during the Jim Crow era of American history, but the Civil Rights movements of the 1960s led to a revival of celebrating African-American culture and awareness. Those renewed interests led to a rebirth of sorts for Juneteenth celebrations, which eventually led to the push to recognize the holiday as a federal holiday.
Cool. So what happens on Juneteenth these days?
As a federal holiday, that generally means federal employees, bank workers, and local government workers observe the holiday by being closed for business. Government agencies deemed essential will still be operational, although they may be working with minimal staff.
To better celebrate Juneteenth, consider learning more about the history of Juneteenth itself and engage in community activities celebrating the holiday. Enjoy soul food and learn about how life in America has changed since 1865 while keeping an open mind about how further changes could help make life better for all Americans.