The celebration of Juneteenth dates back to June 19, 1865, when Union soldiers reached Galveston, Texas, with news that the war had ended and that the enslaved were now free.
Juneteenth is the oldest known celebration commemorating the ending of slavery in the United States.
Now, for those of you who paid attention in history class, you’ll recall that President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation which declared “all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free,” went into effect on January 1, 1863. Side note: This is where the tradition of joining together for Watch Night Service on New Year’s Eve originated.
The Proclamation also announced the acceptance of black men into the Union Army and Navy, where they join in the fight for the liberation of their people.
In Texas, however, the Emancipation Proclamation had minimal impact for two and a half years. Whether it was due to the reduced number of Union troops in the state were unable to enforce the new Executive Order, a messenger was murdered en route to Texas with the news of freedom, or the news was intentionally withheld so slave owner could capitalize on one last cotton harvest using slave labor, the 250,000 slaves in Texas were already free—but none of them were aware of it.
Union General Gordon Granger and his troops arrived in Galveston on June 19, 1865—two months after President Lincoln was assassinated – to enforce the Executive Order.
IMPORTANT ORDERS BY GEN. GRANGER.
THE SLAVES ALL FREE.
HEADQUARTERS DISTRICT OF TEXAS, GALVESTON, Texas, June 19, 1865.
GENERAL ORDERS, No. 3. — The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, “all slaves are tree.” 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.
Nearly 100 years later, Juneteenth was not widely recognized. On June 19, 1968, civil rights leaders including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Ralph Abernathy organized the Poor People’s March focused on economic justice and reigniting Juneteenth as people who attended the march took the celebrations back to their home states.