What is Juneteenth?
Juneteenth is the oldest known celebration commemorating the ending of slavery in the United States. Dating back to 1865, it was on June 19th that the Union soldiers, led by Major General Gordon Granger, landed at Galveston, Texas with news that the war had ended and that the enslaved were now free. Note that this was two and a half years after President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation - which had become official January 1, 1863. The Emancipation Proclamation had little impact on the Texans due to the minimal number of Union troops to enforce the new Executive order. However, with the surrender of General Lee in April of 1865, and the arrival of General Granger’s regiment, the forces were finally strong enough to influence and overcome the resistance.
Later attempts to explain this two and a half year delay in the receipt of this important news have yielded several versions that have been handed down through the years. Often told is the story of a messenger who was murdered on his way to Texas with the news of freedom. Another, is that the news was deliberately withheld by the enslavers to maintain the labor force on the plantations. And still another, is that federal troops actually waited for the slave owners to reap the benefits of one last cotton harvest before going to Texas to enforce the Emancipation Proclamation. All or none of them could be true. For whatever the reason, conditions in Texas remained status quo well beyond what was statutory. (Source)
For these slaves the news of freedom came two and a half years after the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. Despite the delay, it was a day to celebrate freedom. Thereafter June 19 remained an important day.
With freedom came many choices. Some former slaves chose to stay and work for their old masters’, while others moved away to neighboring states. Juneteenth remained an important holiday, and many of those who moved away came back for the annual festivities. Others took with them the traditions of Juneteenth, and it spread throughout the country.
In the earlier years, most festivities took place around rivers, creeks and on church grounds. As traditions developed, activities and food became an important part of the celebration. Activities included rodeos, fishing, barbecuing, and baseball. Strawberry soda, lamb, pork, and beef were just a few of the favorite dishes. Additionally, education and self-improvement were prevalent themes. Guest speakers and elders used it as an opportunity to recount the past. Lastly, prayer services were important.
However, celebrations began to decline in the early 1900s as children were taught in the classroom instead of at home. In the past, families had taught their children the traditions of Juneteenth, but as schoolbooks replaced family customs, traditions were not passed on. The depression also had an effect on the decline of celebrations. Many African Americans were forced to leave farms in search of work in the cities. Whereas, most landowners had given laborers the day off, employers in the city were less likely to give their employees time off for Juneteenth festivities.
The importance of Juneteenth resurged in the 1950s and 1960s as the civil rights movement was underway. In the Atlanta civil rights demonstrations of the early 1960s, marchers wore Juneteenth freedom buttons. In 1968, many African Americans began to see the significance of Juneteenth after the Poor Peoples March to Washington D.C. Many returned home and had Juneteenth celebrations. Additionally, January 1, 1980, marked a significant day when Texas named Juneteenth an official state holiday in celebration of the emancipation of the slaves in Texas in 1865. (Source)
Check out the campaign to make Juneteenth a National Holiday.