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.

Juneteenth: Oldest celebration of slavery’s end still marked with music, prayers, festivals and barebecues

WEDNESDAY, JUNE 19: Gospel concerts, prayer services and barbecues nationwide celebrate the oldest known commemoration of the ending of slavery in the United States: Juneteenth, also known as Emancipation Day.

Despite President Abraham Lincoln’s issue of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1862, followed by the end of the Civil War—white Texans remained resistant to freeing slaves. Due to the minimal number of Union troops present in Texas, slavery continued in the state until June 18, 1865—the day General Gordon Granger and 2,000 federal troops marched into Galveston and took possession of the state. (Wikipedia has details.) The following day, General Granger read General Order No. 3 before a crowd including elated former slaves. Formal celebrations for “Juneteenth” began almost immediately.

Although Juneteenth recognition has had its share of ups and downs over the past century, festivals have been growing rapidly since the 1980s. In Galveston, the center of Juneteenth, this year’s events—multiple Gospel concerts, a prayer breakfast, historical reenactments, a music festival and more—last for almost a week. As of 2012, Juneteenth was recognized by 42 of the United States and the District of Columbia; the term “Juneteenth,” grammatically a portmanteau of the word “June” and the suffix of “Nineteenth,” was coined in 1903.

Just one year following General Granger’s reading of General Order No. 3, freed former slaves had gathered enough money to purchase land for Juneteenth gatherings and celebrations. (Church grounds were also popular for gatherings.) Emancipation Park in Houston and Austin are examples of remaining properties purchased by former slaves. (Learn more history from Juneteenth.com.) In its early years, Juneteenth was a time for family members—some who had fled to the North and others who had traveled to other states—to reunite with relatives who stayed behind in the South. Prayer services have long played a major part in the celebrations.

As Juneteenth approaches its 150th year, Juneteenth.com offers news and information on events across the globe. Got a photo of your local Juneteenth celebration? Submissions are currently being accepted for the Juneteenth 150th Anniversary Yearbook.

Hosting a barbecue or other Juneteenth celebration? Find recipe ideas at Cinnamon Hearts or from Betty Crocker.