The History of Juneteenth and Why It Should Be Celebrated Today

Most people are familiar with the Emancipation Proclamation, signed into law by President Lincoln in 1863, which was meant to set American slaves free. However, the executive order was not enforced right away, and it wasn’t until 1865 that the news of federally-mandated freedom reached slaves in the state of Texas.

Despite President Lincoln’s order, the Union troops found that resistance to the freedom of slaves was too strong and too big to adequately enforce the executive order in the deep south and in Texas in particular. For two-and-a-half years following the order, slavery continued as it always had in the state of Texas.

It wasn’t until the surrender of General Lee and the fall of the Confederacy in the spring of 1865 that the Union troops felt they were strong enough to fight off the resistance to freeing slaves. In Galveston, Texas, Major General Gordon Granger broke the news on June 19th, 1865 that the Confederacy had lost the Civil War and that all slaves were to be set free.

Source: Fort Worth Star-Telegram

Despite talk of an employee-employer relationship between former slaves and their former masters, many enslaved people simply left the plantations they had worked and lived on, without knowing exactly where they were going or what they were going to do, because they were so eager to taste their newfound freedom.

Source: portsmouthnh.com, Portsmouth, New Hampshire

The former slaves who chose to run from their plantations were still met with a great number of challenges. Freed slaves were often rounded up by angry white people, and they were frequently shot dead, tortured, and/or hung from trees. Those who were hung were often left in the trees to serve as a warning to other freed slaves — to let them know they were still under the control of white Americans and could still be killed just for being black. Southern white Americans refused to see freed slaves as true Americans or even human, and they continued to treat black people no different than livestock.

Source: The New York Times

Nevertheless, the newly freed slaves believed it was important to celebrate the day they were truly set free by the United States of America, so the celebration of Juneteenth became a yearly event. Juneteenth.com explains that it was meant to be “a time for reassuring each other, for praying and for gathering remaining family members.”

While the first Juneteenth celebrations took place in Galveston, Texas, the holiday spread across the entire country, as former slaves also moved about the country. In the places where Juneteenth has been and/or is still celebrated, these are some of the historically traditional activities, food, and festivities associated with Juneteenth, according to Juneteenth.com:

  • Barbecue Pits
  • Fine Meats
  • Strawberry Soda
  • Baseball
  • Rodeos
  • Fishing
  • Fine Clothing
  • Prayer Services
Source: AustinMonthly.com

Unfortunately, today, Juneteenth’s reach isn’t very wide, and it’s no longer celebrated in many communities. However, in the last few years, it seems the holiday might be making a comeback, especially as more and more people are educated on the history of that day.

While it would be nice to think that Juneteenth represents the end to all struggles black Americans would have to face, that simply is not the case. Even though it was no longer legal to own slaves in America, black people have continued to face one struggle after another over the last 155 years.

The end of slavery across the country meant the creation of Black Codes (laws that applied specifically to black Americans), as well as the beginning of the Ku Klux Klan. As time went on, black Americans were also subjected to voter suppression tactics, segregation, and Jim Crow laws, which eventually led to the Civil Rights Movement and an overall cultural movement, in which black Americans still had to fight for their actual freedom and equal rights.

Source: Nonprofit Quarterly

It seems to me that Juneteenth could possibly take on even more meaning today, and still deserves to be celebrated, because it could also represent the battles black Americans continue to fight, in an attempt to gain equal rights and equal treatment under the law.

Given the most recent events across America, which include the protests being led (in part) by the Black Lives Matter organization in response to the murder of George Floyd, Juneteenth might actually be a great way to educate our fellow Americans about the obstacles black people have been facing for more than 400 years. Perhaps this type of education would help expand and guarantee the equal rights people of color still lack and continue to fight for.

I was recently made aware of the fact that those who do know about Juneteenth and have learned about it from stories passed down through the generations often don’t know why it took so long for freedom to reach slaves in the state of Texas. It seems there are a number of myths surrounding the events in 1865 and the creation of the holiday.

I believe it’s important for Americans to understand that slavery continued in Texas well past the Emancipation Proclamation because white Texans were unwilling to follow orders given by President Lincoln and refused to give up their tradition of owning slaves and exploiting them for profit. People in America should know how difficult the struggle was to secure freedom for all Americans, no matter their skin color, and they should also be aware of the battles that are still being waged today.

Even though we’ve not seen Juneteenth celebrations locally, I believe it’s time to change that. As a white person, I’m able to see the need for my fellow white Americans to be educated on this matter. I believe black people should also be better informed on the holiday’s origins and their ancestral history. What better way to achieve those goals than by throwing a party once a year?

Maybe we could use June 19th as an opportunity every year to spread knowledge and awareness. Or maybe people should host the traditional barbecues and use that event as a time to discuss race relations. Maybe we could use Juneteenth as a time to hold city- or county-wide discussions between local residents of all colors and our elected officials and police departments. Maybe we could have a parade, of any size, and involve our children in a way that helps them understand diversity and our history.

Community Peace Rally, City Hall in Marion, Indiana on June 5th, 2020
Aerial Imagery and Research

Those of us at Channel 27 feel that educating people about Juneteenth and its history is an important endeavor, and we will do our best to help the people of Grant County understand our shared history, as Americans. While it might sound cliche, knowledge truly is power, especially in a time of civil unrest and the never-ending fight for equality.

Let’s all recognize Juneteenth 2020 as an opportunity to learn, grow, and support our communities. We can make a difference and create change, but only if we stand as one and demand all Americans receive equal rights, equal treatment under the law, and equal opportunities.


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