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 unites with 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act

THURSDAY, JUNE 19: Two pivotal events in history, inextricably intertwined, converge today: It’s the 50th anniversary year of the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and Juneteenth.

Labeled as the “single most important piece of legislation passed in 20th-century America” by Clay Risen, author of The Bill of the Century, the Civil Rights Act did, undoubtedly, change the future of America in countless ways. Yet what is less talked about is how many of the youth involved in demonstrations and campaigns for the Civil Rights Act likened their challenges to those of their ancestors: Student demonstrators in Atlanta in the early 1960s wore Juneteenth freedom buttons. Juneteenth, a portmanteau of June and Nineteenth, has come to be celebrated in almost every state in America, with cultural festivals, summer fairs and delicious foods. Many associate Juneteenth with freedom, African American achievement and a deep respect for all groups and cultures.

Did you know? Most early Juneteenth gatherings had no place to call their own, so church grounds often offered space for celebrations.

The events of Juneteenth began in 1865—two years after President Abraham Lincoln had announced the Emancipation Proclamation. Despite the announcement of freedom for slaves in 1863, many slaves in the the South had seen little difference in their day-to-day duties. It wasn’t until June 19, 1865, that the situation changed in Galveston, Texas. On that fateful day, Major General Gordon Granger landed in Galveston and publicly stressed that the enslaved were now free.

As Major General Gordon Granger and Union soldiers arrived, on June 19, 1865, and Granger read aloud the General Order Number 3: “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 rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and free laborer.”

Freed men and women celebrated in the streets at General Granger’s proclamation: Some immediately packed their bags to head North, while others stuck around in their newly freed homeland. (Read more at Juneteenth.com.) Some traveled to other Southern states to reunite with family members. Juneteenth celebrations began just one year after General Granger’s announcement, on church grounds and by freedmen who had pooled their money to purchase land for the parties. Juneteenth festivities reigned strong for decades, and despite a decline in the early 20th century, a resurgence emerged after the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the 1968 March to Washington, D.C. (Wikipedia has details.)

Texas marked Juneteenth as an official state holiday in 1980; as of last year, 43 U.S. states and the District of Columbia recognize Juneteenth as either a state holiday or a special event.


Dress, food and other Juneteenth customs were cemented from the start, as the earliest freedmen—who had never had experienced the freedom to dress as they pleased—would don fine attire for Juneteenth celebrations. Rodeo, fishing, barbecue and games of baseball have long been popular activities for Juneteenth; speakers and prayer services have inspired crowds in between the festive events. Food has always been center of Juneteenth celebrations, too, with specialty dishes and, in particular, strawberry soda pop. In some places, the Emancipation Proclamation is read and songs are recited, such as Lift Every Voice and Sing and Swing Low, Sweet Chariot. Miss Juneteenth pageants have become popular in recent years.


Mark your calendar now for the June 24 debut of the PBS American Experience documentary, Freedom Summer, which tells the dramatic story of the tidal wave of college students, clergy, musicians and other activists who converged on Mississippi in the fateful summer that also included the murders of three of those students. PBS has set up this website to learn more about the documentary.

ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm previewed the documentary and writes:

“If you think you know the story of the civil rights movement and the milestones reached in 1964—think again! Few chapters of the civil rights movement are as misunderstood as what happened in the deep South in the summer of 1964. For example: A terrible 1988 feature film, Mississippi Burning, gave the impression that the FBI roared into Mississippi to solve the murders of three college students in that fateful summer.

“In fact, the FBI was skeptical of helping at all, as this new PBS documentary proves as it plays a few archival audio clips involving President Lyndon Johnson and FBI director Herbert Hoover. Hoover dismissed the civil rights activists as ‘Communists’ and Johnson wanted to suppress the explosion of activity that arose in Mississippi in 1964.

“This documentary includes some amazing ‘finds’ in terms of the photos, film clips, audio clips and other archival materials brought to light for viewers. One of the most indelible portions of the two-hour documentary is the story of Fannie Lou Hamer, who every American should learn about in our public school history classes. This is must-see TV—filling in a wealth of essential stories about the hard-fought journey toward civil rights that continues to this day.”


Events have been in full swing for the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Civil Rights Act for months, as is evidenced by the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library Civil Rights Summit in April. Recently, former President Bill Clinton spoke on the Civil Rights Act of 1964 at the University of Minnesota, where he relayed its vital significance both in history and today—including the opinion that neither he nor President Barack Obama would have been elected without it. (Click here to read the contents of the Civil Rights Act.)

From PBS to Fox News to The Wall Street Journal, the Civil Rights Act anniversary has been making national headlines. In this article, it’s pointed out that although the Civil Rights Act seems an inevitable passage today, that was hardly the case 50 years ago: in fact, before Lyndon B. Johnson moved into presidency, little was expected on the Civil Rights front. It was the combined pressure from thousands of men and women nationwide that finally made the Civil Rights Act of 1964 a reality.