What is Juneteenth?

Juneteenth is the day in 1865 (June 19) when news of emancipation reached the enslaved population in Texas.  Many people are either hearing about it now for the first time or expressing an interest in learning more about it because of our current demands for racial justice and change.  Some are surprised when they hear that the large slave population in Texas didn’t know on June 19, 1865 about the Emancipation Proclamation, which was issued two years earlier.  Given that people consider this proclamation to have effectively ended slavery, they can’t understand how slaves in Texas were unaware—almost like the story of people on an isolated island who continue fighting a war that ended on the mainland long ago.  The best way to understand all of this is through a simple timeline and the clarification of a few important events.

September 22, 1862- Abraham Lincoln issues the Emancipation Proclamation (effective January 1, 1863), which is widely considered to have ended slavery.  This conclusion, however, is incorrect and both oversimplifies and overstates the impact of the action.  The Emancipation Proclamation officially ended slavery in the states in rebellion (the Confederate States), but not any of the border states, which were still part of the union.  We must remember that the Confederate states considered themselves to be a sovereign nation, so they did not view Lincoln’s proclamation as being the law of the land.  It did have an effect, however, because when slaves in the South learned of it, they understood that they could achieve freedom by escaping North or waiting to be liberated by the Union Army.  This served to further incentivize slaves to seek their own freedom or provide assistance to the Union Army upon its arrival.  It also declared to the powers in Europe that the Union had expanded the goal of the war to include the abolishment of slavery, which had not been a stated war objective prior to that time.  Europe was firmly anti-slavery and this eliminated any possibility of an alliance between the European powers and the South.  The State of Texas was perhaps least impacted of all the Confederate states by the proclamation for all of the reasons mentioned above as well as how far removed it was from both the North and the Union Army.

April 9, 1865- Robert E. Lee surrenders to Ulysses S. Grant at the Appomatox Court House effectively ending the war. Some wonder why this action didn’t immediately end slavery in the South, but we must remember that news traveled much slower in those days.  Word did reach Texas by the end of April, but the Confederate Army of the Trans-Mississippi did not surrender until June 2, 1865.

June 18, 1865- Union General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston with 2000 federal troops to occupy Texas.  At this point, the Emancipation Proclamation had long since been in effect, General Robert E. Lee had surrendered, the nearby Army of the Trans-Mississippi had also surrendered, and now there was a substantial federal presence to enforce the end of slavery.  The day after his arrival (June 19, 1865), General Granger made the following announcement on the balcony of Galveston’s Ashton Villa:

“The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with the proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free.  This involves an absolute equality of rights of property between former masters and slaves and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired laborer.”

The celebration of June 19th as Juneteenth continued annually for many years until it lost some popularity in the early 1900s.  It then experienced a great resurgence during the Civil Rights Movements of the 1950s and 1960s.  In 1980, the State of Texas recognized it as a state holiday and now three other states (Virginia, New York, and Pennsylvania) do so as well.  I’m pleased to report that in 2020, another resurgence of interest in Juneteenth has been duly noted and the possibility of a national holiday is on the horizon,