Why Juneteenth should be a national holiday

The 154-year-old tradition launched by formerly enslaved people has emerged as a celebration of freedom

Tasha Williams YES! Magazine | 6/1/2019, 8:41 a.m.
On June 19, 1865, General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, with a Union regiment.
Juneteenth celebration

On June 19, 1865, General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, with a Union regiment.

It was over two years after the Emancipation Proclamation, and the enslaved people there and in other areas throughout Texas had not been officially informed that President Abraham Lincoln had decreed they were no longer someone’s property. Granger and his soldiers publicly issued General Order Number 3, telling the people of Texas that “all slaves are free.”

The newly freed people of Texas chose that date to commemorate their freedom.

This 154-year-old tradition launched by a generation of formerly enslaved people has emerged in the 21st century as a celebration of freedom, and demand for national observation.

Why the delay?

The Emancipation Proclamation, which went into effect January 1, 1863, needed the active presence of the Union Army to spread the word in designated Confederate states and was not as expeditious or effective in bringing freedom to enslaved people as commonly thought today. After the proclamation, many Confederate slave owners held on to enslaved people whom they considered valuable property for as long as possible. The proclamation, applying only to certain Confederates states, also did not force slave owners in Union border states like Maryland and Kentucky give freedom to the people they enslaved. Andrew Johnson, who was a slave owner and the military governor of Tennessee, negotiated with Lincoln to delay the liberation of enslaved people there until October 24, 1864.

Texas slavers, having waged a military revolution against Mexico in part to keep slavery, seemed determined to wring profit during the two years after the proclamation. Mexico’s first Black president, Vicente Guerrero, had abolished slavery in Mexico and all its territories, including Texas, in 1829. English settlers to the area were, however, keen on using slavery to profit from the cotton boom. After White Texans gained their independence from Mexico in 1836, they embedded slavery in the new republic’s constitution. Slavers increased the enslaved population there from an estimated 5,000 people in 1836 to, according to the 1860 census, 182,566 people. When Texas joined the United States in 1845, the state became a symbol of the potential westward expansion of slavery across the continent.

The celebrations

The first Juneteenth festivities in Austin, Texas, were organized in 1867 by the Freedmen’s Bureau, and the holiday became “part of the calendar of public events by 1872.” In addition to the music and food, the celebrations included recollections of family histories (both under slavery and since) as well as parades and promenades. Communities of freed people sometimes banded together to purchase land to set aside for the Juneteenth celebration. Often these sites, like the one in Houston, would be named Emancipation Park or something similar, in honor of the holiday.

The holiday gatherings survived the terror of the Reconstruction era. And, as the freed people of Texas and their families moved west and years later north, in what is known as the Great Scatter, they also spread the Juneteenth tradition. There was an attempt to tie Juneteenth to the end of the Poor People’s March in the 1960s, but the tradition did not have the popularity as it had decades before.