Juneteenth: Celebrating 150 years of America’s end-of-slavery commemoration

FRIDAY, JUNE 19: It was a sweltering day 150 years ago in Galveston, Texas, when Union soldiers—led by Major General Gordon Granger—landed, with news and an announcement: The war had ended and the enslaved were now free.

Though slaves had been freed more than two years earlier under President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, slaves in the deep South had felt minimum impact. However, with the surrender of General Lee in April 1865, Northern forces were now strong enough to overcome resistance in the South.

On June 19, 1865, General Gordon Granger publicly read General Order Number 3, which read, in part:

“The people of Texas are informed that in accordance with the Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of rights and property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and free laborer.”

In reaction to the news, men and women who had been enslaved danced in the streets. Some immediately left their former masters in search of freedom or to find family members. (Check out PBS for more.) The next year, freedmen organized the first annual “Juneteenth” celebrations in Texas, using public parks, church grounds and newly purchased land for the jubilant parties. (Wikipedia has details.) Juneteenth became an occasion for prayer, family reunions, shared outdoor meals and public readings. Celebrations attracted larger crowds for many years, until looming economic and cultural issues of the early 20th century caused a decline. Juneteenth came back into favor during the Civil Rights movement, and in 1980, it became an official state holiday in Texas.

Did you know? Prior to emancipation, sisters Sarah and Angelina Grimke—daughters of a slaveowner— fought for complete abolition of slavery. Read about the sisters in Daniel Buttry’s Interfaith Peacemakers, or in Sue Monk Kidd’s 2014 bestseller, The Invention of Wings.

Today, Juneteenth is observed across America with Miss Juneteenth contests, parades, barbecues, traditional foods and outdoor games.  (Find recipes here.) Major institutions such as the Smithsonian and Henry Ford Museum have begun sponsoring Juneteenth activities, and in many areas, portions of General Order Number 3 are read. Juneteenth has, from its beginnings, focused on education and self-improvement, and celebrations often include public readings of the writings of noted African-American writers and singing. (Learn more from AmericasLibrary.gov.) Currently, 43 states—along with the District of Columbia—recognize Juneteenth as a state holiday or day of observance.

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