CHAMPION STRATEGIES – PUBLIC SPEAKING WORKSHOP – JUNE 14, 2021
Juneteenth: The 156-year-old holiday’s history explained
Juneteenth is a 156-year-old holiday celebrating the emancipation of African-Americans from slavery in the U.S. It is celebrated on June 19 (the name is a combination of the words “June” and “nineteenth”) because on that date in 1865, Major General Gordon Granger of the Union Army landed in Galveston, Texas and informed slaves that the Civil War had ended and slavery had been abolished.
Granger and roughly 2,000 Union soldiers were there to enforce President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, which had actually gone into effect more than two years earlier, on January 1, 1863. (In fact, Lincoln himself had been assassinated a few months earlier, in April 1865.)
However, the more than 250,000 slaves in Texas were still shocked to hear the by then years old news that they were free, according to the National Museum of African American History & Culture.
On June 19, in Galveston, Granger publicly read General Order No. 3, which stated: “The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free.”
Today, there remain varying accounts of why it took so long for the news of slavery’s abolition to reach Texas, with one story claiming that a messenger bearing the news was murdered on his way there. However, many historians note that Texas remained a Confederate state until 1865, when Robert E. Lee finally surrendered to the Union Army, and the state would therefore not have enforced Lincoln’s proclamation until the Union took control.
Historians also report that many slave owners in Texas intentionally withheld information about the Emancipation Proclamation from slaves before 1865 in order to keep their labor force intact.
Regardless, Granger’s arrival and the news that slavery had been abolished by the federal government kicked off widespread celebrations across the state.
In the book, “Lone Star Pasts: Memory and History in Texas,” a former slave named Felix Haywood recalled the first celebrations on June 19, 1865: “We was all walkin’ on golden clouds….Everybody went wild…We was free. Just like that we was free.”
The importance of the holiday
Simply put, Juneteenth is “the oldest nationally celebrated commemoration of the ending of slavery in the United States,” according to Juneteenth.com.
In addition to marking a date of major significance in American history, Juneteenth has always been both a day of remembrance and an opportunity for African-Americans to honor their history and celebrate Black culture.
African-American historian and Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. writes that, over generations, Juneteenth became: “an occasion for gathering lost family members, measuring progress against freedom and inculcating rising generations with the values of self-improvement and racial uplift. This was accomplished through readings of the Emancipation Proclamation, religious sermons and spirituals, the preservation of slave food delicacies (always at the center: the almighty barbecue pit), as well as the incorporation of new games and traditions, from baseball to rodeos and, later, stock car races and overhead flights.”