9 Things You Might Not Know About Juneteenth
1. WHAT IS JUNETEENTH?
Juneteenth refers to the Freedom Day or Emancipation Day celebrated by African Americans in the U.S., originally in Texas. It commemorates the announcement of the abolition of slavery and the emancipation of slaves on June 19, 1865.
2. WHAT WAS THE OFFICIAL PROCLAMATION THAT ABOLISHED SLAVERY?
“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
When Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger issued the above order, he had no idea that, in establishing the Union Army’s authority over the people of Texas, he was also establishing the basis for a holiday, “Juneteenth” (“June” plus “nineteenth”), today the most popular annual celebration of emancipation from slavery in the United States. After all, by the time Granger assumed command of the Department of Texas, the Confederate capital in Richmond had fallen; the “Executive” to whom he referred, President Lincoln, was dead; and the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery was well on its way to ratification.
3. ENSLAVED PEOPLE HAD ALREADY BEEN EMANCIPATED—THEY JUST DIDN’T KNOW IT.
Major Granger was not just a few months late issuing the executive order. The Emancipation Proclamation itself, ending slavery in the Confederacy (at least on paper), had taken effect two-and-a-half years before. So technically, from the Union’s perspective, the 250,000 enslaved people in Texas were already free—but none of them were aware of it, and no one was in a rush to inform them.
A quote from Hayes Turner’s essay, explains it this way:” The 19th of June wasn’t the exact day the Negro was freed. But that is the day they told them that they were free … And my daddy told me that they whooped and hollered and bored holes in trees with augers and stopped it up with [gun] powder and light and that would be their blast for the celebration.”
4. WHAT HAPPENED AFTER THE ANNOUNCEMENT OF THE ABOLISHMENT OF SLAVERY WAS KNOWN AS “THE SCATTER.”
Most freedpeople were not terribly interested in staying with the people who had enslaved them, even if the pay was involved. In fact, some were leaving before Granger had finished making the announcement. What followed became known as “the scatter,” when droves of formerly enslaved people left the state to find family members or more welcoming accommodations in northern regions.
5. NOT ALL ENSLAVED PEOPLE WERE FREED INSTANTLY.
Texas is a large state, and General Granger’s order (and the troops needed to enforce it) were slow to spread. According to historian James Smallwood, many enslavers deliberately suppressed the information until after the harvest, and some beyond that. In July 1867 there were two separate reports of enslaved people being freed, and one report of a Texas horse thief named Alex Simpson whose enslaved people were only freed after his hanging in 1868.
6. FREEDOM CREATED OTHER PROBLEMS.
Despite the announcement, Texas slave owners were not too eager to part with what they felt was their property. When freed people tried to leave, many of them were beaten, lynched, or murdered. “They would catch [freed slaves] swimming across [the] Sabine River and shoot them,” a former enslaved person named Susan Merritt recalled.
7. HOW DO WE CELEBRATE JUNETEENTH?
It is celebrated to this day to unite a community, and like most celebratory gatherings of African Americans, a big part of it revolves around clothing. Due to the efforts of African American legislator Al Edwards, Juneteenth became an official state holiday on January 1, 1980.
For the freed people of Texas, they went about the business of celebrating their local version of Emancipation Day. For them, Juneteenth was, from its earliest incarnations, as Hayes Turner and others have recorded, a past that was “usable” as an occasion for gathering lost family members, measuring progress against freedom and inculcating rising generations with the values of self-improvement and racial uplift. This was accomplished through readings of the Emancipation Proclamation, religious sermons and spirituals, the preservation of slave food delicacies (always at the center: the almighty barbecue pit), as well as, the incorporation of new games and traditions, from baseball to rodeos and, later, stock car races and overhead flights.
8. THE JUNETEENTH FLAG IS FULL OF SYMBOLISM.
Juneteenth flag designer L.J. Graf packed lots of meaning into her design. The colors red, white, and blue echo the American flag to symbolize that the enslaved people and their descendants were Americans. The star in the middle pays’ homage to Texas, while the bursting “new star” on the “horizon” of the red and blue fields represents new freedom and new people.
9. JUNETEENTH IS STILL NOT A FEDERAL HOLIDAY.
Though most states now officially recognize Juneteenth, it’s still not a national holiday. As a senator, Barack Obama co-sponsored legislation to make Juneteenth a national holiday, though it didn’t pass then or while he was president. One supporter of the idea is 93-year-old Opal Lee—in 2016, when she was 90, Lee began walking from state to state to draw attention to the cause.