The History of Juneteenth

While the Emancipation Proclamation ending slavery was signed by President Abraham Lincoln on January 1, 1863, the edict would not officially reach Texas until June 19, 1865 - two and half years later. Juneteenth is the annual commemoration of that momentous day when slaves in Texas were declared free by the US Army. Texas was the 
last bastions of slavery during the final days of the Civil War. 

On September 22, 1862, following a significant Union victory at the battle of Antietam, the 16th President and Illinois native Abraham Lincoln issued an Emancipation Proclamation which declared that all enslaved persons in the Confederate South shall be “thenceforward and forever free.” Upon taking effect on January 1, 1863, the proclamation received high praise from abolitionist Republicans in the North but was met with less enthusiasm from Southern states where slavery remained prevalent. While President Lincoln’s decree was an unambiguous message to Confederate states, many slaves in the South remained in bondage for months, and in some cases, years following the Emancipation Proclamation and were only afforded freedom when Union soldiers arrived to ensure cooperation.

As Union forces made their way across the South, announcing the good news of President Lincoln’s proclamation and ensuring slaves were made free, the once-fractured United States slowly began to come together despite reluctance from opponents of emancipation. By June of 1865, Texas remained the only state in the country to still have slaves, despite the proclamation and the United States’ formal abolishment of slavery on February 1, 1865. On June 19, 1865, 1,800 Union troops, led by General Gordon Granger, arrived in the city of Galveston. Upon their arrival, General Granger issued General Order #3, stating, “The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free.” As a result of Granger’s announcement, the estimated 250,000 remaining slaves in the United States were made aware of their guaranteed freedom, and slavery was no more.

As a result, June 19th quickly became a date of remembrance and celebration for African Americans. While the name of the holiday had changed throughout post-Civil War American history, celebrations that included prayer services, singing, and the reading of Lincoln’s decree began as early as 1866 in Texas despite stifling efforts from opponents of emancipation. In the years that followed the end of the war, Juneteenth celebrations started to take place in other parts of the country as African Americans began leaving Texas in favor of industrial cities in the North or newly founded communities out west.

Juneteenth only became more prevalent during the Civil Rights Movement that took place a century after the last slaves were freed. The perseverance displayed by the millions of people who suffered during slavery served as a beacon of hope for African Americans who continued to fight for justice and equality in the 1960’s. As the Civil Rights Movement gained national attention, so did the Juneteenth celebrations that the activists organized. Juneteenth’s prevalence continued to grow following the Civil Rights Movement and, in 1979, was formally recognized for the first time when Texas designated June 19 as an official state holiday.

In the 1990s, the Juneteenth Movement that we know today began in a New Orleans church when Reverend John Mosley and the New Orleans Juneteenth Freedom Celebration held a gathering that attracted Juneteenth organizers from across the country to celebrate and promote the holiday. Groups such as the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation were created to provide education on the significance of June 19th and promote Biblical reconciliation from slavery by recognizing the holiday. The continued efforts put forth by these organizations ultimately paid off, as all fifty states now recognize Juneteenth as a holiday or day of observance. In 2021, 155 years after the first Juneteenth celebrations in Texas, June 19 was consecrated as a national holiday.

As we recognize this monumental day, let us remember the suffering endured by millions of slaves who spent their lives in bondage and celebrate the strides our nation has made to better protect the freedoms of every American.