Juneteenth: The Celebration Of African-American Emancipation From Slavery

Published June 3, 2019
Updated June 5, 2019
Published June 3, 2019
Updated June 5, 2019

On June 19, 1865, slavery officially ended in Texas. Now, we commemorate every "Juneteenth" with celebrations of freedom.

Boy With Balloons

Kathryn Scott Osler/The Denver Post/Getty ImagesA young boy and his family celebrate Juneteenth in Denver, Colorado.

Strawberry soda-pop flows and barbecues sizzle in parks around the nation every June 19. It’s Juneteenth, and a crowd full of smiling faces — most of them black, but with all races invited to join in — is abuzz with songs, stories, and laughter.

Juneteenth isn’t the most well-known holiday out there, but it’s one America direly needs. It’s a day meant to commemorate the end of slavery. It’s not a day for mourning and misery, it’s a day for celebration.

“This is our day to be happy,” says Paul Herring of Flint, Michigan. As the New York Times puts it, it’s like “Martin Luther King’s birthday without the grieving.”

“When I think of Martin,” Herring says, “I can’t help but see the dogs and the sticks and the little girls in the church. But when I think of Juneteenth, I see an old codger kicking up his heels and running down the road to tell everyone the happy news.”

It’s a day to be happy instead of a day to mourn; a celebration of freedom instead of a lamentation of slavery. And it’s a holiday that everyone’s welcome to celebrate — no matter the color of your skin.

How To Celebrate Juneteenth

Juneteenth Dancers In San Francisco

vhines200/FlickrDancers fill the streets during a Juneteenth celebration in San Francisco.

Some people hold picnics on Juneteenth. Others hold rodeos. Some have family reunions or parties in parks. Others throw baseball games, cookouts, or beauty pageants.

Celebrations vary from place to place, but some traditions are more consistent wherever you go.

Barbecues are common, as are red items like red velvet cake and strawberry-flavored soda pop.

The color red is thought to commemorate either the blood of the millions of slaves who suffered under institutionalized brutality, or modern slave descendants’ connection to the West African communities their ancestors who ripped away from (red is a symbol of strength in many West African cultures, as well as a common color of African berries).

No matter what Juneteenth celebrators do or eat, all that matters is that they get out there, be happy, and enjoy their freedom.

Freedom Comes To Texas

Gordon Granger

Wikimedia CommonsGordon Granger, the man who read the declaration of emancipation in Galveston, Texas. Circa 1860-1865.

Freedom, after all, is what the party is all about. It’s a day meant to commemorate the emancipation of slaves in Texas, who didn’t find out they were free until June 19, 1865 — two and a half years after Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.

News traveled slowly in the 1860s, but 30 months was an eternity even back then. So what happened?

Texas’s state government and its slave owners knew about the Proclamation soon after its issue, but instead of trying to comply, they fought back. Texans filed multiple lawsuits challenging the proclamation between 1863 and 1865.

According to JSTOR Daily, some of these lawsuits “attempted to gain some kind of financial compensation from the government for the loss of revenue from the slave trade, even after it was made illegal.”

Texans were so resistant that they withheld the news of the Proclamation from their slaves in order to keep the free labor and maintain the status quo. And so the institution of slavery continued unchecked.

On the morning of June 19, Union Army General Gordon Granger rolled into Galveston Island, outside Houston. He climbed up to the balcony of the Ashton Villa and declared:

“The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free.”

Not everything he had to say was good news, though. His declaration of freedom was littered with thinly-veiled threats that freed slaves would “not be supported in idleness” and that they ought to “remain quietly at their present homes” and continue working for their former masters for wages instead of starting their own businesses or starting new lives elsewhere.

For people who had spent their whole lives as slaves, though, this was better news than they’d ever expected to hear.

The First Juneteenth

Emancipation Day In Virginia In 1905

Wikimedia CommonsAn Emancipation Day celebration in Richmond, Virginia, circa 1905.

The first Juneteenth celebration came a year later, on June 19, 1866. It started in Galveston and then spread throughout Texas after an 1867 parade in Austin.

When whites forbade blacks from using public spaces, black Americans gathered enough money to buy their own celebrations spots.

In Houston, Baptist minister and former slave Jack Yates helped form the Colored People’s Festival and Emancipation Park Association. In 1872, they pooled together $800 to purchase 10 acres of open land for their Juneteenth celebration. They named it Emancipation Park.

For much of the 20th century, segregation was the law of the land in Texas, and Emancipation Park was the only park where black Houstonians could go. In 2017, after decades of neglect, the park was completely revamped.

Becoming A Nationwide Celebration

Juneteenth Poor Peoples March

Wikimedia CommonsDemonstrators participating in the Poor People’s March, where Juneteenth spread. June 18, 1968. Washington, D.C.

For a long time, Juneteenth was only celebrated in Texas. But as the Great Depression and a World War brought on a Great Migration of African-Americans to the north, the people of Texas spread across the country, bringing Juneteenth with them.

The Civil Rights Movement helped spread the holiday even further. In 1968, tens of thousands participants in the Poor People’s March on Washington — initially organized by Martin Luther King Jr. and carried out by Rev. Ralph Abernathy after King’s death — learned about the Texas tradition. They brought it home with them and celebrated it in every state across the country, creating what at the time was the biggest Juneteenth celebration to date.

But it just got bigger and bigger from there. By 1980, it was an official state holiday in Texas, and in 1997 it was officially recognized by Congress — though it still isn’t a federal holiday. Today, there are only four states that didn’t recognize Juneteenth as a state holiday or special day of observance.

Juneteenth Today

Today, Juneteenth is rapidly becoming a major holiday, and it’s starting to get recognized in every corner of the world. It’s been spread faster than ever through TV, both Black-ish and Atlanta have aired special Juneteenth-themed episodes, and whole organizations have cropped up just to spread the word of the holiday.

And it’s spread far. Today, annual Juneteenth celebrations are held in France, Taiwan, Ghana, Afghanistan, and every corner of the world. It’s grown from a minor American holiday to an international celebration, and it’s showing no signs of slowing.

Nor should it. It’s as American as a holiday can be. It isn’t like other holidays. It isn’t a day for quiet contemplation or religious devotion or for discount sales on the finest stock of memory foam mattresses.

It’s a day to celebrate freedom from slavery, any way you choose — and a day that everyone is welcome to join in.

As one organizer puts it: “Everybody likes it. There’s nothing sad about Juneteenth.”

Next, learn how the revolutionary data visualizations of W.E.B. DuBois captured everyday African-American life in his Paris exposition, “American Negro.” Then, check out 34 pictures of life in the Reconstruction era, after emancipation.

Mark Oliver
Mark Oliver is a writer, teacher, and father whose work has appeared on The Onion's StarWipe, Yahoo, and Cracked, and can be found on his website.