Juneteenth: What It Is, and How to Honor It

The Juneteenth Flag

Although the Emancipation Proclamation was published in 1863 and the Civil War ended in April of 1865, some African-Americans in the south remained enslaved through the middle of 1865. In Texas, for instance, far from Appomattox Court House where the war ended and only populated by a handful of Union soldiers, slavery persisted until June 19, 1865.

Approximately 250,000 slaves were freed on June 19th. Slavery was not formally abolished in the United States until December 1865, when the Thirteenth Amendment was passed, but June 19th, or Juneteenth, has been celebrated for 155 years now as the commemoration of the end of institutionalized slavery.

Juneteenth, also known as Emancipation Day is not a federal holiday, but it’s a massively important date in American history.

Note: This article is intended to be a summary, not a complete telling of the story of Juneteenth. To learn more about Juneteenth and emancipation, here are some books that capture the historical and emotional significance of Juneteenth. We encourage readers to do more research and learn from African-American authors, speakers, and thinkers. 

Juneteenth, by Ralph Ellison
Black Angels, Linda Beatrice Brown
Envisioning Emancipation: Black Americans and the End of Slavery by Deborah Willis

The History of Juneteenth

On June 19th, 1865, Union General Gordon Granger rode into Galveston, Texas with his men. Although the Confederacy surrendered months earlier, many in Texas still considered themselves free from the U.S. In fact, many slavers actually moved into Texas as the war shifted, believing they could cling to slavery in the vast state.

In Galveston, Granger read General Order Nos. 3, 4, and 5, outlining American law and bringing Texas formally into the union again. Order 3 ended slavery in Texas and Granger’s words have lived on to today:

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 at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts; and they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.

On June 19, 1866, freedmen in Texas celebrated “Jubilee Day” on the one year anniversary of their emancipation. Over the years, Juneteenth celebrations took shape as communities gathered for barbecues and parades, shared prayers and music, and gradually spread across America.

It wasn’t until 1979, however, that any state recognized Juneteenth as a holiday. Texas, where the celebrations began, finally noted the holiday first. Today, Juneteenth is recognized by 47 states as a holiday, all except Hawaii, North Dakota, and South Dakota. This year, some major companies including Nike Inc., Twitter, The New York Times, the NFL, Spotify, and more designated Juneteenth as a work holiday as well, giving employees the day off with pay.

Celebrating Juneteenth 2020

Juneteenth is usually celebrated with large community-centered events. However, because of the coronavirus pandemic, community gatherings are nearly impossible in many cities. Most communities have responded by planning virtual Juneteenth celebrations.

Although online celebrations take away from the mass gatherings that usually come with Juneteenth, these virtual events allow for anyone, in any city, to connect, commemorate, and learn more about the holiday. Here are a few of the virtual events happening this week:

There are plenty of other ways to celebrate and honor Juneteenth, primarily by working to educate yourself or others on the history and significance of the day. If you have the day off from work, consider reading a book or watching a movie from a black creator, or simply speaking with people in your lives about black culture and history. While Juneteenth has always been a significant holiday, this year it comes amid protests about brutality against African-Americans.

Juneteenth itself represents the fact that in the United States, justice does not usually come for African-Americans quickly or easily. Slaves in Texas were forced to continue working in subjugation for 30 months after they were declared free, a ringing indictment of how laws are rarely as effective at ensuring the rights of African-Americans in practice as they are on paper.  That remains true today, as thousands of black people have been shot and killed by police officers without any accountability or reform.

Juneteenth is remembered as Emancipation Day for African-Americans, but as a society, we have a long way to go until many can achieve true freedom and justice in this country. Learning more about the past can help us shape the future, and understanding the roots, history, and significance of Juneteenth can still provide insight on what must be done today to cure some of the ills of systemic racism.

The Juneteenth Flag

The Juneteenth Flag, the icon at the top of this article, uses the red, white, and blue of the American flag in a new way to symbolize the freedom of a new people. The bursting star represents Texas, the Lone Star State, brimming with freedmen on the first Juneteenth. The flag was created in 1997 by Ben Haith, the Founder of the National Juneteenth Celebration Foundation, and Haith began raising the flag on June 19th at Roxbury Park in Massachusetts every year.