Juneteenth, also known as Emancipation Day, is a U.S. holiday celebrating the day slavery was abolished in the United States of America. Learn about the holiday’s history and how it is celebrated here.

icon of a black hand breaking a chain

When is Juneteenth?

We celebrate Juneteenth each year on June 19th!

On June 17th, 2021, President Biden signed the bill into law, officially making Juneteenth a formal US Federal Holiday. It was the first holiday to be signed into law since Martin Luther King Jr Day in 1983! [1]

What Is Juneteenth and why is it a Federal Holiday?

First we need to take a look at the history a little bit, particularly the Emancipation Proclamation.

A Brief History of the Institution of Slavery and it’s Abolishment

photo of a black woman with her fist raised in honor of Juneteenth

As the immigrants established the colonies in North America, slave traders began kidnapping abled bodied men, women and children from Africa. This cheap source of labor took millions of people from their homes and native lands, forcing them into a life of servitude.

Slaves were a much cheaper source of labor than indentured servants, so the colonists readily purchased these stolen people from their kidnappers. [2]

People have trafficked in human beings for thousands of years, but it wasn’t until the mid-1600s that the slave trade became based on racial identity.

Around 1619, there were two English Pirate Ships who seized a Portuguese slave ship, the São João Bautista, containing around 20 people from Africa. They brought their “cargo” to a port near Jamestown and proceeded to sell their “inventory”. 

These newly purchased and enslaved people faced completely new lives as mostly laborers in the tobacco, cotton and farming industries.

This event changed the course of history and established a slave trade based on race and commerce. [3]

The Growing Conflict between Slave States and Free States

The Northern States and Slavery.

Several northern states abolished slavery early on. The first was Pennsylvania, though its decree was not unilateral and only provided freedom for every child born after its declaration. And then only once that child reached the age of 18. 

Via a judicial decree in 1783, Massachusetts outlawed slavery outright. And soon several other northern states followed. 

New Hampshire, Connecticut, and Rhode Island made similar laws to Pennsylvania’s that would, over time, give slaves their freedom.

In the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, the United States Congress abolished slavery in future states north of the Ohio River.

New Jersey came along in 1804 and then New York in 1817. Though NY outlawed slavery in its entirety in 1828. And then Pennsylvania finally sealed the deal in 1857.

After 1850, the only place where there continued to be people still in slavery was New Jersey. But only those who were born prior to 1805.  [4]

For those states below the Mason Dixon line, the story was very different. 

The abolition of slavery did not interest the Southern States, primarily because they didn’t want to lose their economic advantage of free labor.

In 1842, the Prigg v Pennsylvania case Enraged the South.

Under Prigg, the Fugitive Slave Clause guaranteed enslavers their right to recapture enslaved persons and delegated to Congress constitutional authority to protect and enforce the right. But states could refuse to assist slave owners in reclaiming their slaves because Congress could only compel federal judges and legal officers to enforce constitutional rights secured by the federal Constitution. Thus, after Prigg, new state “Personal Liberty” laws in the North directed state officers and courts to refuse to enforce the rights of southern enslavers.

Interactive Constitution

But that wasn’t the only thing that infuriated the South.

The Failed 1846 Amendment That Tried to Contain Slavery

David Wilmot, a representative from Pennsylvania, sponsored a law in 1846 that would eliminate the growth of slavery throughout the territory acquired after the Mexican-American War.

Unfortunately, the Wilmot Proviso failed and heightened tensions between the North and the South.

The Election of 1860

The tipping point for the Southern States was when the US elected Abraham Lincoln president.

His election created an enormous amount of fear for the Southern people. They had three main fears:

  • Fear that they would lose States’ rights, 
  • Fear that Lincoln and the Republicans would promote tariff laws   
  • Fear that Lincoln would abolish slavery

These fears led to the Southern states seceding from the Union and ultimately the Civil War.

Emancipation Proclamation

On January 1st, 1863, (three years into the Civil War) Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. In it, he declared that “that all persons held as slaves” within the rebellious states “are, and henceforward shall be free.” [5]

When President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, it wasn’t immediately effective in every state and territory of the Union.

It applied only to the states that succeeded.

It seems strange that this didn’t free all the slaves everywhere. But it didn’t. At this point, there were actually still some slaves in the Northern states.

This meant was that only those held in slavery in the states that succeeded from the Union were actually free.

So when did all the slaves receive their freedom?

It wasn’t until January 31st, 1864 that slavery was completely and totally abolished in the United States. When Congress finally ratified 13th amendment, they officially freed ALL of the slaves. 

It states, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” [6] 

The Civil War Finally Ends

The end of the civil war finally came when Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse on April 9, 1865.

However, it took awhile for the news to spread. 

When Did the News Reach Texas?

There was war still raging in Texas, and it wasn’t until June of 1865, when 2000 Union Troops walked into Galveston, that the people of Texas would know that those enslaved were now free. [7]

When General Gordon Granger showed up in Texas, he issued General Order Number 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. 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 freed 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 that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.” [8]

Did Slavery end on June 19th, 1865?

Technically, it did. The 13th Amendment was in force and the Union controlled the country. However, many plantation owners refused to give up their slaves or even tell them what had happened. So if the slaves found out and tried to flee, their enslavers would pursue them and recapture them or worse, kill them. 

It was nearly impossible for the Union Army to patrol all of the territories and enforce the abolishment of slavery. [9]

The First Juneteenth Celebration

In 1867, Austin, Texas, the state capitol, hosted their first Juneteenth celebration. It was organized by the Freedmen’s Bureau and by 1872, they added it to the calendar of public events. [10]

How did juneteenth grow in popularity?

As slaves found out about their freedom, they began to celebrate. However, white people would often times bar black men and women from congregating. Thus making it nearly impossible for them to gather together to celebrate Juneteenth.

This roadblock inspired several black leaders in Houston to come together and raise money to purchase a plot of land. They bought a parcel for $1,000 in Houston where their community could gather and hold celebrations. [11]

They called it Emancipation Park, and it is still holding Juneteenth celebrations today! 

How do people celebrate Juneteenth?

Today the holiday is celebrated all of the United States (and the world). Communities hold family reunions, gatherings, parades, barbeques and even Blue’s festivals.

Often the hymn, “Lift Every Voice and Sing” is the opening song for these events. Many often refer to it as the “Black National Anthem”. [12]

Ways to Honor Juneteenth today

Famous Civil Rights Leaders

There have been many brave, black individuals who have lead the charge for racial equity and civil rights. Below are a few, just a few, who stand out among the pages of history.

  • Dred Scott
  • Harriet Tubman
  • Sojourner Truth
  • W.E.B. Du Bois  
  • Malcolm X.
  • Frederick Douglass
  • Mildred Loving
  • Rosa Parks
  • Medgar Evers
  • Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Noteworthy stats about Civil Rights

Juneteenth is an important holiday in the lives of all Americans. Today, we here at National Day Ideas stand as allies in the fight for racial justice and social equity.

For more days like juneteenth, just visit our Calendar to see what’s coming up!

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