What is Juneteenth?


Friday marks the 155th anniversary of Juneteenth, a holiday commemorating the abolishment of slavery that takes place every year on June 19.

The date refers not to the end of legal slavery in the United States but to the gap in time before everyone heard the news.

According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, Juneteenth was first celebrated in Texas in 1866 and has since been reserved as a day of celebration and reflection for many African Americans.

This year, the date falls amid protests against racism and police brutality sparked by the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks and other black Americans.

As state and federal lawmakers face ongoing protests over police use of force, a number of cities and states have recognized Juneteenth as an official holiday.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) issued an executive order recognizing the date as an official holiday for state employees and announced plans to propose legislation making it “an official state holiday so New Yorkers can use this day to reflect on all the changes we still need to make to create a more fair, just and equal society.”

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) also made Juneteenth a holiday for state employees.

Companies like Twitter, Nike and JCPenney have also announced plans to observe the date as a holiday. The NFL closed league offices in observation.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) have announced plans for legislation making Juneteenth a federal holiday.

While a culmination of recent events have brought mainstream attention to the celebration, the holiday’s origins date back to June 19, 1865, the date Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger issued an order in Galveston informing thousands of enslaved people in Texas that “all slaves are free” under the Emancipation Proclamation issued by President Abraham Lincoln.

The proclamation by Lincoln that freed enslaved people in Confederate states like Texas, that had seceded from the nation during the Civil War, was issued two years prior to Granger’s order.

Historian Henry Louis Gates, Jr., pointed out in an essay explaining the holiday’s history in The Root that emancipation took longer in Texas partly due to slave owners in other states “migrating to Texas to escape the Union Army’s reach.”

Gates also noted in his essay that after Granger issued his order and the subsequent ratification of the 13th amendment in December 1865, “it wasn’t exactly instant magic for most of the Lone Star State’s 250,000 slaves.”

“On plantations, masters had to decide when and how to announce the news — or wait for a government agent to arrive — and it was not uncommon for them to delay until after the harvest,” Gates wrote.

A timeline leading up to Juneteenth

1619 - Approximately 20 captive Africans are sold as indentured servants in Jamestown, Virginia, beginning a history of slavery in the British North American Colonies.

1641 - Massachusetts becomes the first North American colony to recognize slavery as a legal institution.

1662 - A Virginia court rules that children born to enslaved women would also be enslaved.

1688 - Pennsylvania Quakers adopt the first formal anti-slavery resolution.

1775-1783 - At the start of the Revolutionary War against the British, General George Washington orders recruiting officers to accept free blacks into the American Army. More than 5,000 blacks, predominantly from the Northern states, fight on against the British, according to the Jim Crowe Museum at Ferris State University. 

1776 - The Second Continental Congress adopt the Declaration of Independence, in which Thomas Jefferson, a lifelong slaveholder, wrote that “all men are created equal.” In Jefferson’s original draft, he railed against King George III for creating the slave trade in the American colonies and described it as a "a cruel war against human nature." It was later removed after objections from slaveholding delegates from both the North and South. 

1793 - The Second Congress pass the Fugitive Slave Act, “respecting fugitives from justice, and persons escaping from the service of their masters.” It authorizes the arrest or seizure of fugitives and empowered "any magistrate of a county, city or town" to rule on the matter, as well as establishing a fine of $500 against any person who aided a fugitive.

1808 - On Jan. 1, laws banning the importation of slaves from Africa or the West Indies go into effect in the United States and British colonies.

1820 - The Missouri Compromise is passed to admit Missouri as a slave state and abolish slavery in Maine in an effort to preserve the balance between slave and free states. With the exception of Missouri, slavery is banned in all of the territory purchased in the Louisiana Territory north of the 36° 30’ latitude line.

1857 - The Missouri Compromise is declared unconstitutional in the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott v. Sandford decision. Chief Justice Roger Taney’s opinion declares that slaves were not U.S. citizens and could not sue in the federal courts. 

1860 - Abraham Lincoln is elected the sixteenth president of the United States on Nov. 6. On Dec. 20, South Carolina becomes the first state to secede from the Union. That year’s Census shows the black population in the U.S. to be 4,441,830, of which 3,953,760 were enslaved and 488,070 free.

1861 - Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Texas, Virginia, Arkansas, North Carolina and Tennessee also secede and the Confederate States of America is established. The Civil War begins in April.

1863 - On Jan. 1, Lincoln issues the Emancipation Proclamation, which declares “that all persons held as slaves” within the rebel states “are, and henceforward shall be free.” The proclamation has little impact on Texans due to the small number of Union troops in the state able to enforce the executive order.

The document also calls for the recruitment and establishment of black military units among the Union forces. History.com estimates that 180,000 African Americans served in the Army and 18,000 in the Navy.

1864 - The U.S. Senate passes the 13th Amendment, prohibiting slavery and involuntary servitude in all states, Union and Confederate. The measure passes in the House of Representatives on Jan. 31 the following year but the amendment was not enacted by ratification until December.

1865 - General Robert E. Lee surrenders his Confederate troops to the Union’s Ulysses S. Grant on April 9. Lincoln is assassinated by John Wilkes Booth in Washington, D.C. on April 14 and does not live to see the war officially end.

On June 19, Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger lands in Galveston, Texas and reads General Order No. 3 informing an estimated 250,000 enslaved people in the state of Lincoln’s proclamation 901 days prior.

"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."

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