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Juneteenth: A Celebration of Freedom

James is a self-proclaimed history nerd who believes that for many Americans, Independence Day happens in June.

From the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation to Juneteenth

From the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation to Juneteenth

What Is Juneteenth?

Juneteenth honors the official end of slavery in the United States of America and its territories. It is the oldest known observance that celebrates this historic event. Juneteenth was already designated as a commemorative observance holiday or legal holiday in the District of Columbia and 49 of the nation’s 50 states prior to gaining federal holiday status. South Dakota remains the only state that would not recognize this holiday.

Juneteenth was first awarded holiday status by the state of Texas, effective during the 1980 calendar year. Pockets of people within the nation’s African-American community, however, have acknowledged Juneteenth since its inception in 1865. Today, people across the globe partake in the liberation gala. In 2020, the holiday marked its 155th anniversary.

Galveston, Texas, is the original site of Juneteenth. The town has celebrated it since 1865.

Galveston, Texas, is the original site of Juneteenth. The town has celebrated it since 1865.

The Origins of Juneteenth

The Emancipation Proclamation lay at the heart of all things Juneteenth. The hallowed directive was already a late arrival upon the American scene. President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation via an executive order in September 1862, thus making it effective on January 1, 1863.

The actual emancipation of slaves in Texas took even longer, however. The lofty edict could not be enforced in Texas until nearly three years after it was written.

The Union Army’s conquest of Texas towards the end of America’s Civil War unleashed the rein of slavery there. General Gordon Granger announced General Order #3 in the island hamlet of Galveston, Texas on that fateful day. The military order liberated slaves as authorized by the dictates enumerated in the Emancipation Proclamation.

The date associated with the Union soldiers' victorious advance is June 19, 1865. The previously bound people welcomed the reprieve so much that they invented a new word. They merged the words "June" and "nineteenth" with an ingenious bit of indigenous vernacular to form the word Juneteenth.

Photo of the author's American flag

Photo of the author's American flag

Slavery and America's Foundation

A bridge of nearly 250 years spanned the time from slavery’s arrival on the North American continent and the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation. America's enslavement of black African people began in North America at the Jamestown, Virginia, settlement in the year 1619.

Slavery continued to persist within the region known as the 13 original colonies that preceded America’s independence. It remained following the nation’s birth, even as founders expressed lofty rhetoric about freedom and equality.

Inspired by the gospel message, abolitionists followed the tenets of their faith and waged war against slavery from its onset. Some were martyred for the cause.

Slavery continued to provoke political and economic conflict within the country all the way up to its well-deserved demise. America of the 19th century was dominated by slavery’s insidious influence upon life in both the North and South. A series of pitched battles came about as the result of its impact on the American conscious. The sustained discord would eventually erupt into the Civil War, which would inevitably lead to the Emancipation Proclamation.

Key 19th-Century Events That Led to the Civil War

Here is a brief list of important events that contributed to the eruption of the Civil War.

1808: The Slave Trade Is Made Illegal

The Slave Trade Act of 1807 takes effect on the first day of 1808. This law prohibited further importation of slaves to the United States and its territories.

1820: The Missouri Compromise

Missouri’s calendar year 1819 request for statehood as a slave state upset anti-slavery factions within Congress and throughout the country. However, a compromise was reached in which Missouri was allowed to enter as a slave state while Maine was created and made into a free state. It also included an imaginary latitude border line dividing north and south territories upon which the north would be free and the south slave holding (see above map).

1834: The Farren Anti-Abolition Riots

A spate of riots erupted at multiple locations in New York City over the course of four days. The devastation that appeared to be caused by random mob action took on a very organized approach. Abolitionists, such as evangelist Lewis Tappan and English actor George Farren, and their property were targeted for destruction. Likewise, African-Americans were also targeted and their homes destroyed.

Philadelphia and Cincinnati (among other places) would later host similar anti-abolition riots and attacks upon African-Americans by working class whites who feared the potential job competition of an increased free black population. The Farren riots foreshadowed the eerily similar draft riots held in New York City over the course of five days in 1863.

1846–1848: The Mexican-American War

Led by President James K. Polk, the U.S. instigated a dispute with Mexico that led to war. Mexico outlawed slavery in 1824 after winning independence from Spain. The Mexican government and the then-slaveholding Republic of Texas engaged in ongoing disputes, with the U.S. taking Texas' side. Texas, which was incorporated into statehood in 1845, was annexed to the United States. Furthermore, territory in what is currently the western part of the country was added as a condition of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo that ended the war.

1850: The Compromise of 1850

The Compromise of 1850 displayed diplomacy at its best. Congress managed to throw a bone to the hounds on both sides of the debate. They did this with five separate pieces of legislation related to the slavery issue with the following results:

  • Texas lost its claim to the New Mexico territory but kept the Texas panhandle and received funds.
  • California was admitted as a free state.
  • The citizens of the Utah and New Mexico territories were allowed popular sovereignty. They could vote their choice as to whether to have slavery.
  • The Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 was amended to give it more teeth. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 now required cooperation of federal officials of all states, free states included, with help in returning escaped slaves. For example, an official in free state Illinois would be required to help in the efforts to get a slave who escaped from slave state Missouri or else face severe consequences (see Dred Scott decision below).
  • The slave trade was abolished in the nation’s capital, but slavery itself remained.

1854: The Kansas-Nebraska Act

Kansas would eventually join the United States in 1861 after several southern states seceded from the Union. Nebraska, however, would not join the U.S. until after the Civil War. The law allowed both states popular sovereignty with regard to slavery and erased the imaginary border line put in place by the Missouri Compromise.

1857: The Dred Scott Decision

The Dred Scott decision (Scott v Sanford 60 U.S. 393) may well be the most notorious case in U.S. Supreme Court history. It engaged in far-reaching conclusions about the Constitution that effectively declared an entire population of people unfit for citizenship. The decision basically called into question the humanity of the people involved.

The Court determined that with regard to black descendants of Africans brought to the U.S. for slavery: “we think they are not, and they are not included, and were not intended to be included, under the word citizens in the constitution.” The Court also declared that they these people: "had no rights or privileges but such as those who held power and the Government might choose to grant them.” (60 U.S. 393, 404-405)

As such, this would apply even to free black people, regardless of what they might have contributed to the nation. John Brown and his adventures at Harpers Ferry would follow two years later.

Al Edwards served Houston's 146th District in the Texas House of Representatives for over 30 years. This statue depicts Edwards holding up a copy of the Texas Juneteenth law.

Al Edwards served Houston's 146th District in the Texas House of Representatives for over 30 years. This statue depicts Edwards holding up a copy of the Texas Juneteenth law.

The Emancipation Proclamation and Its Limits

The Emancipation Proclamation granted legal freedom to slaves located in Confederate regions. It provided the heretofore enslaved black populace the right to ownership by God and themselves only, free of interference from other men. Furthermore, it promised cooperation and protection from the U.S. military forces, both ground and sea. As such, U.S. law would no longer abide or promote keeping those named in slavery.

Still, the Emancipation Proclamation had its limits. One such hindrance was its scope. The freedom granted to slaves was limited to those in Confederate allied areas. It did not apply to slaves in the so-called border states. Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, and Missouri were slave states that were not part of the Confederacy. The freedom mandate also failed to reach sections of Louisiana and Virginia who didn’t join their state in leaving the Union.

The Emancipation Proclamation could be enforced only in those places with a substantial Union military presence. It is one thing to declare a law, but it’s another to enforce that law. As a result, this did not put an immediate end to all slavery practices within the country.

Yet, words are power, for that which is written and that which is spoken matter. A noted philosopher wrote in a widely acclaimed book that: “Death and life are in the power of the tongue” (Holy Bible Proverbs 18:21).

The Emancipation Proclamation’s speech changed the Civil War from a regional-based power play derived from cultural, political, and economic differences into a sharply defined moral cause that would unite the Union. Its words laid the foundation for the enslaved populace to fully participate in the fight for their own liberation. The statement was made that the slavery past was finished and a free future would emerge on the horizon. The 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery, arrived shortly thereafter.

Participants in a 2011 Juneteenth parade in Milwaukee march through the rain.

Participants in a 2011 Juneteenth parade in Milwaukee march through the rain.

How Juneteenth Became an Official Holiday

Juneteenth’s official name in the Lone Star State is “Emancipation Day in Texas.” The aptly named day is a state holiday in Texas whereby public offices may be closed for business. It shares this distinction with a select few other holidays, one of which ironically is Confederate Heroes Day. As such, emancipation celebration is set aside on the Texan calendar.

The chain of events that would make Juneteenth official accelerated in 1979. Al Edwards, a Democrat from Houston, sponsored H.B. 1016, a proposal to add Juneteenth to the Texas holiday calendar. William “Bill” Clements, the Republican Governor at the time, signed the measure into law, which became effective in 1980.

Texas observes Juneteenth on the actual date, June 19, that the emancipating events occurred. However, most states—including Arkansas, Louisiana and Oklahoma, three states that border Texas—reserve the third Saturday in June for their observances. Juneteenth’s official name also varies across state lines. For instance, Arkansas refers to this as “Juneteenth Independence Day.” Oklahoma, on the other hand, calls it “Juneteenth National Freedom Day.”

"Shaw at Fort Wagner": This mural honors Col. Robert Gould Shaw and the Massachusetts 54th Regiment, made up of freed slaves who fought during the Civil War.

"Shaw at Fort Wagner": This mural honors Col. Robert Gould Shaw and the Massachusetts 54th Regiment, made up of freed slaves who fought during the Civil War.

Celebrating the Beginning of Freedom

The end of slavery is a serious subject. To that end, Juneteenth commemorations often focus on African-Americans’ contributions, the awful injustices of the slavery past, and other historical facts.

Yet, this is still a summertime American holiday. As such, holidays are not complete without the requisite parades, parties, picnics, and barbecue. The distinct party favor affiliated with Juneteenth is red soda pop or strawberry soda. Red is the common color on the Juneteenth, Texas, and American flags.

The end of bondage and beginning of freedom is something worth celebrating. Juneteenth is the perfect occasion to do so.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2015 James C Moore

Comments

James C Moore (author) from Joliet, IL on August 24, 2020:

Rania Heikal

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Thank you for visiting my humble hub page. Juneteenth culminated after lifetimes of struggle.

Rania Heikal from Egypt on August 24, 2020:

Valuable information I go through for the first time. Well laid out facts

James C Moore (author) from Joliet, IL on July 09, 2020:

Bill,

I thank you sir for taking part in the civil rights movement. I was born in the 60's but don't actually remember much from it. But thanks to people challenging the status quo when I was a young pup progress was made.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on July 09, 2020:

America's original sin, and I'm wondering how many more hundreds of years it will take "us" to learn from it and correct it? I marched back in the 60's and at the time I thought surely we are making a difference. Today I'm not so sure. But we must keep fighting or it will all be for naught.

James C Moore (author) from Joliet, IL on April 28, 2017:

I wasn't aware of Freedom Day in South Africa. Thanks for sharing.

Nadine May from Cape Town, Western Cape, South Africa on April 24, 2017:

Yes a well written post on this topic. Freedom Day on 27 April is an annual celebration of South Africa's first non-racial democratic elections of 1994 Freedom Day recognises and celebrates the strides that have been made since 1994, and acknowledges that South Africa is a far better society than it was under apartheid.

James C Moore (author) from Joliet, IL on March 11, 2017:

Thank you Bodylevive. I imagine that southern locations such as in Alabama emphasize the holiday more than those such as my Midwestern location.

BODYLEVIVE from Alabama, USA on March 10, 2017:

I love your research and writing! I live in Alabama and Juneteenth is celebrated with crafts, foods, music and much more here.

James C Moore (author) from Joliet, IL on January 03, 2017:

Nadine May, I recently revisited Juneteenth's birth place(albeit briefly) this past July. While there, I talked to family from Buffalo New York who said that they have one of the biggest longest running celebration of the holiday. I've always enjoyed learning history.

Nadine May from Cape Town, Western Cape, South Africa on January 03, 2017:

An interesting read from someone from South Africa who never knew about Texas having an Emancipation Day and all the other dates is history you wrote about. It's always a pleasure to learn these facts from foreign countries.

James C Moore (author) from Joliet, IL on August 04, 2015:

Thank you for reading and your kind comment. The only occasions that I had to visit Galveston, TX were during September. Too bad, because they really do Juneteenth big.

Mel Carriere from Snowbound and down in Northern Colorado on August 03, 2015:

Definitely a day that needs to be celebrated everywhere, by all people. I learned a lot from this well written hub.

James C Moore (author) from Joliet, IL on July 06, 2015:

Ms Dora, It's too bad that during my initial forays into Galveston, Tx, I was unaware of its ties to juneteenth. I went there for the beaches. Next time there, I will check out some history.

Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on July 06, 2015:

Thanks for the history and interesting facts on Juneteenth. It's been a while since I heard or read the word. Thanks for highlighting its importance to all of us. Voted Up!

James C Moore (author) from Joliet, IL on July 04, 2015:

Glad to hear from you. Its never too late to celebrate juneteenth. In fact, when we have our family reunion in July of next year, we'll incorporate some juneteenth observance. A relative got the ideal to do this after viewing this hub.

Dianna Mendez on July 04, 2015:

You certainly have posted a lot of interesting facts on this topic. June is past but next year this will help to make it a great month of celebrations.

James C Moore (author) from Joliet, IL on July 01, 2015:

Yes, lawrence01, many lifetimes happened between the arrival of slavery in North America and juneteenth, but the believers helped lead the way to freedom. Thanks for reading.

Lawrence Hebb from Hamilton, New Zealand on June 30, 2015:

Awesome.

I knew about the struggle to end the slave trade and the Royal Navy being given the right of siezure for any ship of any flag (nation) in 1809 but didn't know the USA had already banned the trade the year before!

Awesome hub and thank you for explaining the steps to Lincoln's courageous move to emancipate the African American.

Lawrence

James C Moore (author) from Joliet, IL on June 19, 2015:

Thanks for reading and have a jolly juneteenth.

Akriti Mattu from Shimla, India on June 19, 2015:

Well put and well researched :)

James C Moore (author) from Joliet, IL on June 18, 2015:

Thank you. The ideal came to me a couple of weekends ago when I was seeking Juneteenth celebrations to party at. I might still end up somewhere enjoying a Juneteenth fest.

FlourishAnyway from USA on June 18, 2015:

A well written and well researched hub on a topic so relevant today. Nice job! Voted up and more.

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