Juneteenth Explained: The 155-Year-Old History of the Fight for Freedom
The Current Landscape
On Thursday, June 17, 2021, President Joe Biden signed legislation to make Juneteenth a federal holiday to commemorate the end of slavery in the United States.
“All Americans can feel the power of this day, and learn from our history,” President 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.
He said signing the law was one of the greatest honors he will have as president.
Juneteenth is a 156-year-old holiday commemorating the emancipation of enslaved Africans in the United States.
A combination of the words “June” and “nineteenth,” the name represents the date in 1865 that Union General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, to inform enslaved Africans of the surrender of General Lee and the end of slavery. General Granger’s speech included a reading of General Order 3iii:
“The people of Texas are informed that in accordance with a Proclamation for the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor.”
Even though President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation had gone into effect more than two years prior, this announcement was a surprise to the more than 250,000 enslaved Africans living in this confederate state who had not yet been freed. Despite the Emancipation Proclamation being put into effect in 1863, it was not immediately implemented in states still under confederate control.
While some stayed to explore opportunities as paid laborers (which bound them to woefully unjust contractual agreements that led to sharecropping, yet another form of slavery), many African Americans fled plantations and the southern geographic region for the north. Even with no place to go, they now had legal freedom.
The post-emancipation era, also known as Reconstruction (1865-1877), was a time of great uncertainty. The country lacked a comprehensive, cohesive, and strategic plan to politically, legally, socially, and academically support African Americans who struggled to navigate newfound freedom. However, these formerly enslaved people immediately sought to establish schools, run for political offices, advocate for legislation, fight for change, and reunite with family members from whom they had been separated during slavery. Considering their 200+ years of enslavement, this was nothing short of remarkable—not even a full generation removed from slavery.
Juneteenth is celebrated annually, in some way, in nearly all states. Many families and communities commemorate this legacy of resilience and hope with cookouts, parades, parties, concerts, and other similar events that affirm Black culture.
This year’s celebrations are likely to be bigger and more widely covered by the media, making them more visible to both the American public and global allies in the fight for social justice.
According to Dr. Mark Anthony Neal, James B. Duke Distinguished Professor of African and African American Studies at Duke University, “the stakes are a little different. Many African Americans, Black Americans, feel as though this is the first time in a long time that they have been heard...I think Juneteenth feels a little different now.”
There’s never been a better time than now to educate, advocate, and celebrate Juneteenth. We hope you take the time this weekend to do just that. Check out Experience Columbus’ “How to Celebrate Juneteenth in Columbus” for event listings.
Dr. Sierra Austin is a graduate of the Department of Women's and Gender Studies at The Ohio State University, with a focus on race and social justice. Sierra's research (done in our member district Columbus City Schools), activism, work focused on education equity and prioritizes operationalizing intersectional approaches to social change. She offers professional development through the ESC focused on equity, consultation, and community workshops.i
i We use the term “enslaved African” rather than “slave” to honor the humanity of those who were oppressed and to separate one’s identity from their circumstance.
ii Taylor, Derrick B. “So You Want To Learn About Juneteenth?” So You Want to Learn About Juneteenth?, The New York Times, 15 June 2020, www.nytimes.com/article/juneteenth-day-celebration.html.
iii Brunvand, Jan H, editor. “Juneteenth.” American Folklore: An Encyclopedia, Garland Publishing, Inc, 1996, pp. 877–878.