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Juneteenth is a celebration connected to the emancipation of African Americans in the United States and their struggle for civil and human rights.  According to the National Juneteenth Observance Foundation, Juneteenth is the “oldest known celebration commemorating the ending of slavery in the United States.” What is remarkable about this celebration is how a very devastating past is presented through the platform of a celebration.  Even the title “Juneteenth” sounds like linguistic wordplay, a neologism that stumbled out of someone’s mouth in a creative moment. Or, it might have been a way of explaining a date in June, or conveying confusion about a date.  It is somewhat comical because of how the month is something we can recognize while the date is unclear. The folk can be quite resourceful when given the opportunity to reinvent themselves.  The freedom festival becomes a creative tool for freed slaves to chronicle their lives and to reimagine a more favorable place of existence in a world that has relegated them to beasts of burden, anything but human.  We can imagine that in 1865 when a union officer comes to deliver them a message of freedom, it will change their lives forever. The mood will be a mixed bag of confusion, disbelief, pandemonium, jubilation, and even depression.  How did these 250,000 slaves in Galveston finally get the message?
General Order No. 3Juneteenth’s origin is connected to learning about General Order Number 3, delivered June 19, 1865 in Galveston by Union general Gordon Granger (1822-1876), commander of what was then called the Department of Texas. It was two years after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863. This document was quite limited.  Emancipation left those unfree in the Confederate States.  Lincoln’s proclamation did not consider those living in the border states. The slaves' freedom would depend upon the Union military victories; thus, this document invigorated the human spirit of black American males to join the military (army or navy) and fight for freedom. For example, William C. Andrews (1827-1906) was a stationmaster on the Underground Railroad. He recruited African American men to serve in the First Kansas Colored Volunteer Infantry Regiment. He became one out of the 120 African Americans commissioned as officers. By the end of the war, nearly 200,000 black Americans had fought for the union.
In the War Between the States (the Civil War), Texas was considered the far west of the Confederacy  rebellion and the last stronghold to surrender. Many will say that very last battle of the Civil War took place at Palmito Ranch, May 12-13, 1865, in South Texas (Brownsville). More than 200 soldiers from the 62nd US Colored Infantry recruited from Missouri took up arms for the Union. They felt they were doing something purposeful for freedom and justice.  The resistance in Texas helped to delay the end of the war. Confederate officials were certainly not in the mood to deliver the message of freedom to the slaves, to the planters, or to the average European American citizen. The climate was one of confusion and terror; news of freedom for the 250,000 slaves would have reached individual plantations gradually.  

The historical moment of gaining freedom is so profound that efforts to commemorate its magnitude started with personal celebrations that eventually became very organized events. According to Teresa Paloma Acosta, a year following General Granger’s Proclamation, the first known Juneteenth celebration occurred (June 19, 1867) in Austin, the capital city. The Freedman’s Bureau helped direct the event. By 1872, Juneteenth was listed in their calendar of public events.  Migrations of African Americans to cities in the South, the Industrial North , the Midwest, out West, out East and various other landscapes have contributed to the spread of the Juneteenth festival.
Historian Tyina Steptoe, in her research about Houston history, found that during World War I, fancy hotels such as the Rice hotel would serve their customers carryout dinners during the Juneteenth celebration because their African American labor force such as maids, chauffeurs, gardeners, etc. would use it as a holiday. This shows how some European American bosses were aware of the significance of the Juneteenth festival to African American communities. They realized that labor force was important to the local economy. The work of such groups as The National Juneteenth Observers Foundation has made a concerted effort to get the celebration to become a National observance in the US. So far, 45 states and the District of Columbia have declared it as a state holiday.  
Today, Juneteenth celebrations will often contain the following themes: re-enactment of history; preservation of history; uplift of the communities; learning about the African past and the diaspora; expressing one’s pride in the culture(s) through hairstyles, fashion, culinary arts, music and the arts; pursuit of the American dream; addressing urgent issues (including health, education, politics, etc.); and expressing one’s  faith.  To many, it is a big family reunion to reaffirm one’s historical roots and sense of being. Juneteenth, in its many forms, has gotten the attention of the international community, including, France, South Korea, Japan, Canada, Nigeria, etc.
 The “Black Lives Matter” Movement has become galvanized as millions are protesting the deaths of so many unarmed African Americans, males and females who perish too often at the hands of the police. Police reform that works for the benefit of underserved communities across the board must become a reality for everyone. Conversations about racism and human justice are being conducted via social media. Juneteenth messages are posted by many who had not heard of the festival before the murder of George Floyd. Research shows that Juneteenth is a very dynamic and malleable event that can adapt to grass roots organizing/activism. Perhaps it may soon become a national holiday for the United States.

Gen. Gordon Granger
Gen. Gordon Granger

William Andrews

William C. Andrews


Acosta, Teresa Palomo, “JUNETEENTH”, Handbook of Texas Online. accessed June 18, 2020,
Mittan, Kyle, “Black Lives Matter and Pandemic Bring Juneteenth into Focus,” Interview with Tyina Steptoe, June 17, 2020.  Accessed June 18, 2020
The National Archives.     proclamation. Accessed June 17, 2020
Wiggins, Jr. William. O Freedom: Afro-American Emancipation Celebrations. U of Tenn., 1987

Carol Taylor Johnson, PhD.
National Center for Human Relations, Director
Department of English and Africana Studies

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