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What Is Juneteenth?

 

Keith Lance

Illustrated print by Thomas Nast depicting life before and after emancipation.

Juneteenth (short for "June Nineteenth") is a holiday commemorating this day, which marked the effective end of slavery in the United States.

The Emancipation Proclamation

On June 19, 1865-two and a half years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation-some 1,800 federal troops arrived in Galveston, Texas to take control of the state and ensure that all enslaved people be freed.

Confederate General Robert E. Lee had surrendered at Appomattox Court House two months earlier in Virginia, but slavery had remained relatively unaffected in Texas-until U.S. General Gordon Granger stood on Texas soil and read 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 free."

As word spread about Granger's announcement, celebrations broke out across the state. Juneteenth (short for "June Nineteenth") commemorates this day, which marked the effective end of slavery in the United States.

The Emancipation Proclamation issued by President Abraham Lincoln on January 1, 1863, had established that all enslaved people in Confederate states in rebellion against the Union "shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free." But in reality, the Emancipation Proclamation didn't instantly free any slaves. The proclamation only applied to places under Confederate control and not to slave-holding border states or rebel areas already under Union control. However, as Northern troops advanced into the Confederate South, many slaves fled behind Union lines.

Juneteenth and Slavery in Texas

In Texas, slavery had continued as the state experienced no large-scale fighting or significant presence of Union troops. Many slave owners from outside the Lone Star State viewed it as a safe haven and had moved there with their slaves.

After the war came to a close in the spring of 1865, General Granger's arrival in Galveston that June signaled freedom for Texas's 250,000 slaves. Although emancipation didn't happen overnight for everyone-in some cases, slave owners withheld the information until after harvest season-celebrations broke out among newly freed blacks, and Juneteenth was born. That December, slavery in America was formally abolished with the adoption of the 13th Amendment.

In the ensuing decades, Juneteenth commemorations featured music, barbecues, prayer services and other activities, and as blacks migrated from Texas to other parts of the country the Juneteenth tradition spread. In 1979, Texas became the first state to make Juneteenth an official holiday, and today most states hold Juneteenth observances.

 

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