Juneteenth Explained: The 155-Year-Old History of the Fight for Freedom
The Current Landscape
As corporations, leaders, and a wide-ranging plethora of entities announce efforts to stand in solidarity with African Americans in light of nationwide protests against police violence, the Juneteenth holiday has been in the news. Leaders across a variety of industries, such as Nike, the National Football League (NFL), Twitter, Square, and Vox Media, have declared Juneteenth a paid holiday, leading some to ask: what is it, and why is it important?
Juneteenth is a 155-year-old holiday commemorating the emancipation of enslaved Africansi in the United States.
Commemorated by African Americans since the late 1800s, the holiday has garnered renewed interest from the mainstream as it resonates in new ways. Mark Anthony Neal, PhD, an African American Studies scholar at Duke University, explains that Juneteenth is “an opportunity for folks to kind of catch their breath about what has been this incredible pace of change and shifting that we’ve seen over the last couple of weeks.”ii
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 over two years before, 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. Neal, “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 week to do just that.
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.