Juneteenth—also known as Jubilee Day, Freedom Day, Black Independence Day, Emancipation Day and Juneteenth National Independence Day—is the annual commemoration on June 19 of the emancipation of enslaved African Americans in the United States. President Biden first officially recognized the federal holiday in 2021, but Juneteenth has been celebrated since 1865. So why did it take so long to acknowledge the freedom of all African Americans in this country nationally? Let’s look at its 150-year history and illuminate its importance today.
On January 1, 1863, in the midst of the Civil War, President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing enslaved people in the Southern secessionist states of the Confederacy. In parts of Confederate territory, this information was met with resistance, was not enforced due to the lack of presence of Union troops, or did not make it to the region at all. On June 19, 1865, 2,000 Union troops arrived in Texas, the last state of the Confederacy with institutional slavery, to deliver the news of freedom. Union General Gordon Granger delivered General Order No. 3 to 250,000 enslaved people and their enslavers in Galveston, stating:
“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.”
As this profound news rang across the state of Texas, reactions from the formerly enslaved varied from astonishment, to joy, to confusion. Some lingered to learn of this new relationship between employer and employee, while those with nowhere to go immediately headed North for better opportunities to reunite their families and enjoy the breath of freedom.
To mark this occasion, the formerly enslaved and their descendants gathered annually to celebrate by hosting barbecues with activities such as rodeos, fishing, praying and public readings from African-American writers. Everyone came prepared with a traditional dish. Red foods were commonly incorporated because they contrast with the green, brown, and white foods often fed to enslaved people. The color red was also a unifying symbol among Africans and Carribeans who were shipped through Texas during the slave trade, because all their home countries have the color red in their official flags. People from the Republic of Congo, Gabon, Benin, Togo and the Yoruba of Nigeria place spiritual value on the color red and therefore incorporated red foods such as watermelon, red velvet cake, hibiscus tea, and strawberry pop in honor of their heritage. As traditions continue through time and differ among regions, memories of the past are acknowledged, recognized, and honored by the descendents of enslaved people—but only for those who are aware of this day.
Although more are aware of its existence today, the history and significance of the Juneteenth holiday are not familiar to all Americans, even within African American communities. Some found Juneteenth more recently, in their teenage or adult years. It is often something heard through the grapevine from a family member or friend but never explored until later in life. Many African Americans are “disconnected from their history and culture,” says Danielle Taylor, a San Francisco resident who celebrates Juneteenth .
Juneteenth is a way of honoring those who have built this country with their blood, sweat, bones and tears. It is a time to “celebrate the freedom of our people,” adds Alexis Rodriguez, executive director of the SF Citywide Black Student Union. Celebrating means recognizing a painful history while honoring the contributions African Americans have made to this country. Juneteenth is about reconnecting with ancestral lineage by nurturing the traditions and passing down this heritage to the next generation.
While it may have taken over 150 years to acknowledge the actual day of Independence for all people in America, “having a day to celebrate our independence and to bring light to our dark history [is one way to] pay homage to the legacy we have now,” according to Taylor.