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Remembering Juneteenth: How did the U.S. get here?

June 19th marks an unforgettable day in U.S. and world history. Juneteenth is an important part of Black history, an important part of U.S. history. Remembering Juneteenth as it becomes a national holiday means remembering the horrors of slavery, reconstruction, Jim Crow, and subsequent eras, while still being honest about where the U.S. is today.

Let us not forget what the day actually stands for, and trace the origins of a day that speaks of delayed liberation at the hands of nefarious means. This Saturday we honor the day enslaved African-Americans were finally told they were free.

The Emancipation Proclamation

On January 1st, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued an Emancipation Proclamation declaring that:

All persons held as slaves are, and henceforward shall be free.

President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation (January 1, 1863)

Unfortunately, this milestone was not immediately as effective as it should have been, limited by simple means of communication as well as Union versus Confederate rule in different states.

More context surrounding Juneteenth, the newest national holiday

It wasn’t until two and a half years later that the proclamation took effect across the country. Indeed, the Union Army had to enforce President Lincoln’s proclamation for it to truly make a change.

Until they did, it continued to be ignored in many states. Slave-owners even moved to places such as Texas to be able to overlook the late President’s proclamation.

As the Civil War died down in June 1865, the Union Army set foot onto more Confederate territory, all the way to Galveston, Texas. There and then, on June Nineteenth, Union Gen. Gordon Granger announced the end of the Civil War and declared the freedom of all slaves in the state.

“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 personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.”

General Orders, Number 3; Headquarters District of Texas, Galveston, June 19, 1865

Juneteenth history: Was it then the end of slavery?

Again, President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation unfortunately did not ensure slaves’ emancipation nationwide.

Slavery was only formally abolished in December of that year, 1865, when the 13th Amendment was adopted. This made it almost three years for slavery to end after the President’s 1863 proclamation.

A day celebrating freedom

As soon as June 19th, 1866, the date called for a celebration.

Also referred to as Freedom Day, Liberation Day, or Jubilee Day, the holiday brings families together mainly through prayer and good cooking.

Mostly held within one’s household and family, some cities in the US now host larger parties and parades. Some emancipated slaves and their descendants will even pay a pilgrimage to Galveston.

Juneteenth a national holiday

After years of stalling in Congress hoping to make this historic date an official holiday, on Tuesday the US Senate just unanimously passed a bill to make Juneteenth a national holiday. It heads to the House later this week.

Remembering Juneteenth means remembering that it was first recognized as a paid public holiday in Texas in 1980. But the nation has been slow to follow.

Last year’s unrest and heart-wrenching events, from George Floyd’s murder to the tragedy’s subsequent unrest continued to press the importance of the holiday over these past months.

Celebrations were often held on the third Saturday of June, to allow all workers to celebrate. It just so happens to fall on a Saturday this year. But from now on Juneteenth will be able to receive the nationwide attention it deserves. The recognition and officiation of this historic event are much anticipated and will mean Juneteenth is firmly planted in U.S. history.

Remembering Juneteenth means remembering and understanding the full story. It means noting that the day is celebrated outside of the country as well by organizations seeking to honor the culture and achievements of African Americans.

Happy early Juneteenth!