Illustration by World History Archive, Alamy
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Illustrator and war correspondent Thomas Nast depicted the emancipation of Southern enslaved people at the end of the American Civil War.

Illustration by World History Archive, Alamy
CultureExplainer

What is Juneteenth—and what does it celebrate?

A day remembering the end of slavery in Texas has spread across the whole U.S., with a larger meaning.

Known to some as the country’s “second Independence Day,” June 19—often called Juneteenth—celebrates the freedom of enslaved people in the United States at the end of the Civil War.

Freedom after the Confederacy

At the stroke of midnight on January 1, 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation came into effect and declared enslaved people in the Confederacy free—on the condition that the Union won the war. The proclamation turned the war into a fight for freedom and by the end of the war 200,000 black soldiers had joined the fight, spreading news of freedom as they fought their way through the South.

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Union leader Gordon Granger told the 250,000 enslaved people of Texas that they were free.

Since Texas was one of the last strongholds of the South, emancipation would be a long-time coming for enslaved people in the state. Even after the last battle of the Civil War was fought in 1865—a full two years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed—many enslaved people still did not know they were free. Some 250,000 enslaved people only learned of their freedom after Union General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, on June 19, 1865 and announced that the President had issued a proclamation freeing them. (Explore the Underground Railroad’s ‘great central depot’ in New York.)

On that day, Granger declared, “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.”


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A celebratory day

With Granger’s announcement, June 19—which would eventually come to be known as Juneteenth—became a day to celebrate the end of slavery in Texas. As newly freed Texans began moving to neighboring states, Juneteenth celebrations spread across the South and beyond.

In 1980, Texas became the first state to recognize June 19 as a state holiday, which it did with legislation. Today, Juneteenth is recognized by nearly every state, and there is an effort underway for federal recognition.

Initial Juneteenth celebrations included church services, public readings of the Emancipation Proclamation, and social events like rodeos and dances. As the Civil Rights movement gained momentum in the ‘60s, Juneteenth celebrations faded. (Learn how to cook Juneteenth cookies.)

In recent years, however, Juneteenth is regaining popularity and is often celebrated with food and community. It also has helped raise awareness about ongoing issues facing the African-American community, including a political fight for reparations, or compensation, to the descendants of victims of slavery.

A Passage to Freedom John Washington faced a heart-breaking choice: stay with his family in slavery or embrace freedom alone. John chose freedom.

For decades, many southern black communities were forced to celebrate Juneteenth on the outskirts of town due to racism and Jim Crow laws. To ensure they had a safe place to gather, Juneteenth groups would often collectively purchase plots of land in the city on which to celebrate. These parks were commonly named Emancipation Parks, many of which still exist today.

Other emancipation celebrations

Despite the holiday’s resurgence in popularity, Juneteenth is still not universally known and is often confused with Emancipation Day, which is annually celebrated on April 16.

Just as Juneteenth originally celebrated freedom in Texas, Emancipation Day specifically marks the day when President Lincoln freed some 3,000 enslaved people in Washington, D.C.—a full eight months before the Emancipation Proclamation and nearly three years before those in Texas would be freed.