What Is Juneteenth? A Celebration of Freedom

What Is Juneteenth? A Celebration of Freedom
Posted on June 1, 2023 by Dr. Shannon

What is Juneteenth? Juneteenth, also called Emancipation Day, Freedom Day, and Black Independence Day, celebrates the end of slavery in the United States. The Emancipation Proclamation issued by President Abraham Lincoln, January 1, 1863, declared all enslaved people living in the Confederate states free. And while those who heard immediately rejoiced and claimed their freedom, it would be more than two years later before the news reached the enslaved folks in Texas. In this blog post, I will delve into the significance of Juneteenth, explore its history, and discuss ways people celebrate this day.

What, to the slave, is the 4th of July?

Juneteenth is a holiday that celebrates the emancipation of enslaved African Americans in the United States. It’s the Independence Day holiday that included Black people, unlike July 4th at the time of its inception. July 4th, celebrates the independence of the nation freed from England’s rule in 1776 when not everyone in the nation was free. Enslaved Black people were still in bondage. Indeed, Frederick Douglass, in 1852, gave a speech in his hometown in Rochester, New York at an independence celebration, titled “What to the Slave is the 4th of July,” and speaks to the tragic irony of the holiday for the enslaved person. He states, “The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.”

There was no celebration for the enslaved Black man. Or the enslaved person who escaped, but still had the shadow of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 hanging over his or her head. Frederick Douglass escaped from slavery and was living in a “free” state where slavery was illegal. But he still was not truly free, because at any point he could have been kidnapped back into the system of slavery. It wasn’t until the end of the Civil War when the south lost, there was a declaration that the enslaved were free. In 1863; ninety years after the Declaration of Independence.

We’re not free, until we are all free.

And still, once the Emancipation Proclamation was announced on January 1, 1863, not all of the enslaved Black people in the Confederate states knew they were free. You see, the news hadn’t reached those who were enslaved in Galveston, Texas. And the enslavers didn’t feel the need to tell them they were free. Why? Because it got them two more years of free hard labor. It wasn’t until the Union soldiers reached Galveston Texas, June 19, 1865, that they knew the system of slavery had been abolished and they could celebrate their freedom. When Union General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation, he announced: "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 hired laborer."

Effectively ending slavery in the state. So, June 19th, 1865 was the day all enslaved Black people knew they were free. But to be clear, it wasn’t until December 6, 1865 that the 13th Amendment effectively ended slavery throughout the entire United States. It gets overlooked that the Emancipation Proclamation freed enslaved people in the states that rebelled, but for states like Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, and Missouri who enslaved people, but were part of the Union, the Emancipation Proclamation didn’t include the enslaved people they owned. The 13th Amendment differs from the Emancipation Proclamation in that 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."

But on June 19, 1965, over 250,000 enslaved people learned they were free and spontaneous celebrations occurred as they shouted and cheered. It was a year later when the name “Juneteenth” came to be as it was celebrated amongst the Black community in Galveston, Texas to formally note the day of their freedom.

Is Juneteenth a National Holiday?

While Juneteenth has been celebrated since the late 19th century, it wasn't until 2021, that it became an official federal holiday. On June 17, 2021, President Joe Biden signed a bill into law that officially designated Juneteenth National Independence Day as a federal holiday. The bill received overwhelming bipartisan support in both the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives. This acknowledgment underscores the importance of remembering and honoring the struggles and achievements of the African American community. This historic decision reflects the nation's commitment to acknowledging and commemorating the end of slavery and the ongoing journey toward racial equality. 

Juneteenth holds great significance as it serves as a reminder of the resilience, strength, and perseverance of enslaved African Americans and their fight for liberation from the shackles of slavery. As a national holiday, it encourages reflection, education, and celebration. By acknowledging the struggles of the past and supporting the ongoing efforts for equality, we can collectively work towards a more just and united society.

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