What Is Juneteenth and Why It Matters to Everyone
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What Is Juneteenth and Why It Matters to Everyone

June 03, 2023 by PathForward
Juneteenth is a powerful reminder of the strength and time it took to achieve freedom from slavery.
Juneteenth is a powerful reminder of the strength and time it took to achieve freedom from slavery.

Juneteenth commemorates the events of June 19, 1865. On this glorious day, General Gordon Granger informed the people of Galveston, Texas, that slaves were freed. Though this came years after the Emancipation Proclamation, it was the first declaration of freedom heard by many in the far reaches of the Confederacy. Juneteenth is a celebration of Black resilience, strength, and achievements.

What Is Juneteenth Celebrated For?

On June 19, Granger proclaimed General Order No. 3, which read:

"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."

The population on the extreme western edge of the Confederacy had withstood the effects of the Emancipation Proclamation before this time. The remaining slaves rallied around this date and made a momentous push for their freedom. The Freedmen's Bureau arrived in September 1865 to continue the work that began on June 19.

Why Didn't Slavery End Before Juneteenth?

Some people have trouble understanding Juneteenth because of the common misconception that slavery ended across the country with the Emancipation Proclamation. Unfortunately, the end of slavery wasn't nearly as clean-cut as some would like to believe. The Civil War began in 1861 as the northern and southern states battled over the power of the government and the prohibition of slavery.

The Confederate states, including Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia, declared succession from the U.S. The Confederacy wanted to maintain the practice of slavery. The Union, which includes Maine, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Vermont, New York, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, New Jersey, Kansas, Minnesota, Michigan, Iowa, California, Nevada, Wisconsin, and Oregon, fought to maintain the unity of the country and abolish slavery.

The Confiscation Act of 1862 was the first step to abolishing slavery. This empowered Union troops to seize Confederate property, including slaves. On January 1, 1863, President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation that declared all persons held as slaves would be free. However, there were some key points that prevented the Emancipation Proclamation from freeing all slaves:

  • Union-loyal border states were exempted. These states, including Kentucky, Delaware, Missouri, and Maryland, could have seceded, as they had Confederate sympathies. Lincoln exempted them from the Emancipation Proclamation to keep them in the Union.
  • Parts of the Confederacy under Union control were exempted from the proclamation.
  • The Emancipation Proclamation would only be enacted if the Union military was victorious.

What Did the Emancipation Proclamation Actually Do?

The Emancipation Proclamation allowed people of color to join the Union Army. This meant that the army consistently grew as it advanced into the Confederacy and brought more areas under its control. The liberated slaves could join the army and in turn become the liberators. Over 178,800 African American sailors and soldiers were fighting for the Union by the end of the war.

Why Is It Called Juneteenth?

Juneteenth is simply a shortened way of saying June 19. Juneteenth is also referred to as our second Independence Day, Freedom Day, and Emancipation Day.

When Did Juneteenth Become a Holiday?

Juneteenth was celebrated by the African American community as early as 1866. The year after the initial events of June 19, Black communities gathered to read spiritual tracts, raise their voices in song, and feast together in celebration. Texas declared Juneteenth a state holiday in 1980. Forty-five states and the District of Columbia instituted their own recognition of the date over the following decades. 

As of May 2021, 35% of U.S. adults indicated that they were in favor of making Juneteenth a national holiday. However, 40% of survey respondents were still unfamiliar with the day at that time. The numbers were distinctly different among Black adults. In the Gallup Panel poll, 69% of Black adult Americans were in favor of making Juneteenth a federal holiday, and only 18% were unfamiliar with the date.

Juneteenth became an official federal holiday on June 17, 2021. The historical significance of this date has implications for everyone and is now celebrated accordingly.

How Do You Celebrate Juneteenth?

Juneteenth is a celebration of liberation, freedom, and resilience. It honors the ongoing resistance to slavery and the incredible strength and persistence of the African Americans who waited years after the Emancipation Proclamation for freedom to become a reality. You can celebrate Juneteenth by:

  • Learning more about the holiday through museum exhibits, online videos, and thoughtful publications.
  • Celebrating the works of Black artists.
  • Attending commemorative services or holding your own spiritual readings and prayer gatherings.
  • Supporting local Black-owned businesses.
  • Donating to nonprofits that support the Black community.

Is Slavery Really Abolished?

A crucial point often discussed around Juneteenth is the fact that slavery is not yet completely abolished in America. The 13th Amendment closed many of the loopholes in the Emancipation Proclamation by declaring that slavery and involuntary servitude were prohibited in all states. However, section one of the 13th Amendment still leaves noticeable room for slavery in the U.S. This reads:

“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

While the 13th Amendment ended chattel slavery, it codified slavery for prisoners into law, which has had a disastrous ripple effect on post-antebellum African American society and the prison system. The Abolition Amendment is attempting to rectify this by proposing the addition of a line that reads, "[n]either slavery nor indentured servitude may be imposed as punishment for a crime."

Black history is full of heroes and holidays that deserve more attention. Celebrating Juneteenth and sharing its history with those not in the know is a powerful way to begin. Fighting slavery and oppression is an ongoing battle that needs everyone's support.


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