Happy Independence Day! No… we know it’s not July 4. We’re talking about America’s other Independence Day—Juneteenth.
Haven’t heard of Juneteenth? Don’t worry, you’re not alone. Official polling data on this subject is pretty hard to come by, but it’s safe to say that Juneteenth remains well off most Americans’ radar.
Well, we think it’s time to change that! Juneteenth, celebrated every year on June 19, is a day of immense importance in American history. Why? It commemorates the end of slavery.
The Origins of Juneteenth
Let’s get real: If you think about it, July 4, 1776, really only represents the day that white male Americans became free. In his Independence Day remarks in 1852, Frederick Douglass, the escaped slave and abolitionist, asked, “What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is constant victim.”
For 89 years, Independence Day was essentially a promise unfulfilled. But on June 19, 1865, Major General Gordon Granger issued an order to the people of Texas and everything changed:
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 freedmen are advised to remain quietly 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. —General Orders, Number 3; Headquarters District of Texas, Galveston, June 19, 1865
As important as his words were and remain, General Granger definitely does not win high marks for eloquence. (His suggestion that the freedmen and -women continue to live with and work for their former masters also does not seem particularly well thought-out.) This is not inspiring prose. He’s certainly no Abraham Lincoln. Wait… hadn’t President Lincoln already freed slaves back in 1863? Well…
News Used to Travel Really Slowly
Texas in those days was remote. Nobody there heard about the collapse of the Confederacy and General Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomatox for about two months. But that doesn’t explain why Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, issued on January 1, 1863, took so long to be enforced.
While the Proclamation sounded far more impressive than Granger’s order, its effect was quite limited at first. It applied only to states that had seceded—which means that the Union had to win many battles before any slaves would have their freedom. The Emancipation Proclamation was many things—a rallying cry for the nation, a means to bringing former slaves into the Union Army ranks—but it did not, on its own, free anyone.
So imagine now if you can the effect of Granger’s words as news slowly spread across Texas to the state’s 250,000 former slaves. All at once they found out not only that the war was over, but that they were free. Their joyous, spontaneous celebration gave birth to Juneteenth.
A Day of Celebration
At its heart, that’s what Juneteenth is: a day of celebration. Not that celebration was easy. A lot of former slaveowners tried to hide the news or otherwise devise ways to delay emancipation. Many former slaves were met with violence when they tried to leave. Believe it or not, the Army had to set up 40 outposts throughout Texas to ensure that Granger’s order was followed.
And even then, Jim Crow laws were spreading throughout the South, establishing segregation.
Despite that, the celebrations continued. Former slaves gathered on Juneteenth the very next year, and the year after that, and so on over the decades, with parades, parties, barbecues, or quiet family get-togethers. The celebrations continued thanks to Black families and communities and all others who remembered and honored that day and what it meant. The least we can do is spread the word. It’s time to put Juneteenth on everyone’s calendar, all across the country.
This Year and All the Years to Come
For Black communities in America, justice has often been delayed. Whether it’s waiting almost 90 years for the promise of the Fourth of July to be fulfilled, or a year and a half for the Emancipation Proclamation to have the force of law—or months and months to be released from jail only because you can’t afford to pay bail.
It’s this very history that makes it so important to celebrate Juneteenth today. Slavery was an abomination and it took a war to end it, but it did end. Jim Crow enshrined racism and prejudice in our laws, but the Civil Rights movement put an end to Jim Crow. Today, our freedoms are again under attack, but if we stand together we can continue the long march towards justice, with a goal of ending systemic racism, transforming the criminal justice system, and ensuring justice for all.
Juneteenth was born of one of our country’s darkest hours, but today we celebrate in the light of laughter, good food, family, and freedom.
But the fight isn't over — you can join the movement for justice for people of color treated unequitably by the criminal justice system today. Learn more about our Justice ReMix'd movement and take action below!