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The Historical Legacy of Juneteenth

Photo:  Juneteenth day celebration in Texas. 1900. 

Juneteenth is one of the most important events in our nation’s history. On “Freedom’s Eve” or the eve of January 1, 1863 the first Watch Night services took place. On that night, enslaved and free African Americans gathered in churches and private homes all across the country awaiting news that the Emancipation Proclamation had taken effect.

At the stroke of midnight, prayers were answered as all enslaved people in the Confederate States were declared legally free. Union soldiers, many of whom were black, marched onto plantations and across cities in the south reading small copies of the Emancipation Proclamation spreading the news of freedom.

But not everyone in Confederate territory would immediately be free. Even though the Emancipation Proclamation was made effective in 1863, it could not be implemented in places still under Confederate control. This meant that in the westernmost Confederate state of Texas, enslaved people would not be free until much later. On June 19, 1865 that changed, when enslaved African Americans in Galveston Bay, TX were notified by the arrival of some 2,000 Union troops that they, along with the more than 250,000 other enslaved black people in the state, were free by executive decree.

Photo:  Publishers throughout the North responded to a demand for copies of Lincoln’s proclamation and produced numerous decorative versions including this engraving by R. A. Dimmick in 1864. National Museum of American History, gift of Ralph E. Becker. 

The post-emancipation period known as Reconstruction (1865-1877) marked an era of great hope, uncertainty, and struggle for the nation as a whole. Formerly enslaved people immediately sought to reunify families, establish schools, run for political office, push radical legislation and even sue slaveholders for compensation. This was nothing short of amazing! Not even a generation out of enslavement, African Americans were inspired and empowered to completely transform their lives and their country.

In my opinion, Juneteenth (as that day was called by the freed enslaved people in Texas) marks our country’s second independence day. Though it has long been celebrated among the African American community it is a history that has been marginalized and still remains largely unknown to the wider public.

The historical legacy of Juneteenth shows the value of deep hope and urgent organizing in uncertain times. The National Museum of African American History and Culture is a community space where that spirit can continue to live on – where histories like this one can surface, and new stories with equal urgency can be told.


Tsione Wolde-Michael is the Writer/Editor for the Office of Curatorial Affairs, Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. She is also a Doctoral Candidate in History at Harvard University.

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