Today is Friday, June 19: Juneteenth. One hundred fifty-five years ago today, on Wednesday, June 19, 1865, more than 2,000 federal soldiers under the command of Major General Gordon Granger, arrived in Galveston, intent on imposing Union rule on the thriving community and port city—the last remaining port loyal to the Confederacy.
Among General Granger’s first orders of business was to dispatch delegations to the most prominent gathering points in the city to read out General Order Number 3, which began with:
“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.”
And with that, some 250,000 slaves learned of their freedom. For even though the Emancipation Proclamation signed by President Abraham Lincoln had become federal law on January 1, 1863, the hundreds of thousands of African Americans in the confederate states were still enslaved. Many had no knowledge of the Emancipation Proclamation, as slave owners resisted the end of slavery right up to the end of the war.
Then Granger came to Galveston. June 19 became known as Juneteenth, as those freed from enslavement gathered each year—first in Texas, then across the South and the nation, to commemorate a significant milestone in American history. Its symbolic importance has continued to grow. Currently 47 of 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia recognize Juneteenth as an official state holiday or observance.
Sadly, slavery didn’t end on June 19. It was not until the final ratification of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution on December 18, 1865, when slavery was outlawed throughout the United States. It was then that the enslaved persons in the border states finally received their freedom. And while slavery ended, racism and the crippling effects of systemic economic and social injustice did not.
One reason Juneteenth is important is because it is the oldest celebration honoring the end of slavery in the United States. However, it is also important because it reminds us of the unfilled promise of that momentous day in 1865. While it stands as a symbol for freedom, Juneteenth also stands as a testament to the continuing impact of slavery on our society. It is a call to action for all Americans to confront the underlying issues in our society and culture that have allowed slavery and it’s sad legacy to continue to shape and influence us.
There is another reason that Juneteenth is important. In our public life—including the holidays we observe—we must acknowledge and honor the history and culture of Black Americans. July 4 is important, but it is not enough. Ours is not a single story—it is a story forged from diverse and rich histories and narratives, all of which contribute to our collective culture and the freedoms experienced in these United States. Learning about Juneteenth is important; acting on what we learn is critical.[AR1]
The National Museum of African American History & Culture has an excellent website in which the historical legacy of Juneteenth may be explored. It matters as a part of the complex history of what has divided and shaped our history. It matters even more as we seek to be a more just people and nation in our future.