What Is Juneteenth?

Juneteenth is the holiday marking the day in 1865 when slaves in Texas were notified that they were freed, marking the emancipation of all slaves in Confederate states. Almost two and a half years after President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation and two months after the Confederacy fell, Union Army Gen. Gordon Granger read his General Order No. 3 in Galveston, Texas, freeing slaves there on June 19, 1865. In December 1865, the 13th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified, meaning slavery was abolished in all states.

When Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in September 1862, he freed all slaves in the Confederacy, meaning if they fled a Confederate government, they were no longer slaves in Union states. Because Texas was the most remote state in the Confederacy, there were not many Union troops there and enforcement of the proclamation was slow. Slavery was still technically allowed in the Union border states — states that allowed slavery but never seceded — until the 13th Amendment was finally ratified.

As Henry Louis Gates Jr. points out, when Granger did issue his order, it did not mean the 250,000 slaves in Texas were suddenly free. On plantations, the individual masters decided how they would announce the news and some delayed it until after the harvest. The former Confederate Mayor in Galveston even tried to force freed people to work. Those that took advantage of their freedom sometimes paid with their lives.

One of the most amazing aspects of Juneteenth is just how quickly celebrations were organized in Texas. By 1866, just one year later, "freed" Black men and women organized the first Jubilee Day celebrations. As White politicians began enacting Jim Crow laws in Texas, Black people continued celebrating by gathering near rivers and lakes. Some even raised enough money to buy property for celebrations, like Houston's Emancipation Park and Booker T. Washington Park in Mexia.

Throughout the 1920s, Black migration brought Juneteenth to other states. By 1979, Texas acknowledged Juneteenth as a state holiday, becoming the first to do so. As of now, 47 of 50 states recognize Juneteenth as a holiday. In Washington, D.C., activists have long argued for Congress to make Juneteenth a national holiday. The renewed push to recognize Juneteenth as a national holiday began amid the Black Lives Matter protests sparked by George Floyd's death in Minneapolis police custody on May 25, 2020.

On Thursday, President Joe Biden signed legislation to make Juneteenth a federal holiday. “All Americans can feel the power of this day, and learn from our history,” Biden said at a ceremony at the White House, noting that it was the first national holiday established since Martin Luther King’s Birthday in 1983.

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The Senate rushed the measure through with no debate this week after clearing away a longstanding Republican objection, and the House approved it on Wednesday by a vote of 415 to 14, with all of the opposition coming from the G.O.P.

“Throughout history, Juneteenth has been known by many names: Jubilee Day. Freedom Day. Liberation Day. Emancipation Day. And today, a national holiday,” Vice President Kamala Harris said, introducing Mr. Biden. She also signed the legislation in her capacity as the president of the Senate.