For those who don’t know what it is:
Two months after Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered on April 9, 1865, effectively ending the Civil War, Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger steamed into the port of Galveston, Tex. With 1,800 Union soldiers, including a contingent of United States Colored Troops. Granger was there to establish martial law over the westernmost state in the defeated Confederacy.
On June 19, two days after his arrival and 150 years ago today, Granger stood on the balcony of a building in downtown Galveston and read General Order No. 3 to the assembled crowd below.
“The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free,” he pronounced.
This was the first time many in the crowd had learned of the Emancipation Proclamation, which President Lincoln had issued two and a half years before.
White slaveholders had suppressed the news of the decree freeing the slaves in Confederate territory not under Union control.
“We all walked down the road singing and shouting to beat the band,” a Texas freedwoman recounted.
“Black men pitched their hats high in the muggy June air,” according to another report.
“Men and women screamed ‘We’s free! We’s free!’ ” Others left town, in what became known as “the scatter.”
The jubilation following Granger’s announcement in Galveston moved across Texas, quickly reaching the state’s 250,000 enslaved people.
A year later, a spontaneous holiday called Juneteenth — formed from the words June and nineteenth — began to be celebrated by the newly freed people of Galveston and other parts of Texas.
In 1867, Austin, the state capital, saw its first Juneteenth celebration under the direction of the Freedmen’s Bureau, the federal agency created to provide relief to people displaced by the Civil War.
Embraced as an exuberant day of jubilee, Juneteenth combined a history lesson and a political rally with the gospel hymns and sermons of a church service.
Barbecue was soon added to the mix — this being Texas — with strawberry-flavored red soda water to wash it down.
In time, rodeos, baseball games and family reunions all became part of Juneteenth tradition.
As former slaveholders attempted to maintain their control, this display of freedom was often met with violence.
Juneteenth revelers sought the relative safe haven of black churches — a poignant irony given the tragedy on Wednesday night in Charleston, S.C. Some of these churches began raising money to buy land on which to mark Juneteenth.
In Houston, two black congregations collected pennies and nickels until a 10-acre parcel was purchased for $800 in 1872 and named Emancipation Park, which is still used today.
The festival of freedom spread across the former Confederacy in the late 19th century.
And as African-Americans moved north, they carried this celebration of liberation with them.
As Isabel Wilkerson wrote in “The Warmth of Other Suns,” her prizewinning account of the Great Migration: “The people from Texas took Juneteenth Day to Los Angeles, Oakland, Seattle, and other places they went. Even now, with barbecues and red soda pop, they celebrate June 19, 1865.”
Granger’s order was momentous, but it was no magic bullet. Even with the ratification of the 13th Amendment in December 1865, the emancipated people of Texas, and the rest of America, confronted violent resistance as they attempted to claim the promise of their liberation. Any small gains came in the face of whips and guns, followed by the well-documented decades of Jim Crow laws and Klan terror.
Officially neglected, over time Juneteenth lost much of its resonance in the black community.
But it has enjoyed a renaissance in recent years. Spurred by a revival of pride in African-American traditions long denied or suppressed, Juneteenth has gained official recognition — although not necessarily full legal holiday status — in a number of states, starting, appropriately, with Texas, which made Juneteenth a paid holiday for state employees in 1980.
Still, 150 years after its birth, Juneteenth remains largely unacknowledged on America’s national calendar. Many Americans are unaware of its existence, or its roots. Sadly, that ignorance of Juneteenth reflects a deeper issue: the continued existence of two histories, black and white, separate and unequal.
Frederick Douglass voiced that fundamental divide in a memorable speech on July 4, 1852. “The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me,” he said. “This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mine.”
Juneteenth is the flip side of the Independence Day coin. One hundred and fifty years after General Granger told the enslaved people of Texas they were free, Juneteenth is viewed by many of those who are aware of it as an “African-American holiday.”
That perception unfairly diminishes the fundamental significance of Juneteenth. The day should be recognized for what it is: a shared point of pride in the symbolic end of centuries of racial slavery — a crime against humanity and the great stain on America’s soul. As meaningful as Independence Day itself, Juneteenth completes the circle, reaffirming “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” as the rights of all, not a select few.