Juneteenth’s History

Part 1 of the “A Time to Celebrate and Educate” Series 

By Jackson Adams & Steve Kuzmicki 

Juneteenth, short for June 19th, is an important day in African American history as well as American history. It is the oldest national commemoration marking the end of slavery in the United States.

On this day in 1865, the last of our enslaved ancestors learned of their freedom after General Gordon Granger read the Emancipation Proclamation to the African Americans still enslaved in Galveston, Texas. 

It is important to note that the Emancipation Proclamation had been issued on September 22nd, 1862 and was effective on January 1st, 1863. This is significant because technically when this order was issued, all enslaved person(s) should have been set free. 

However, because information traveled much slower back then, or because of the resistance to the emancipation itself, the news had not yet reached those still enslaved in Texas. Though even when the news had reached Texas, plantation masters were the first to receive the news and it was up to them to decide how to break it to them. Some historians believe that the plantation masters had purposely held off notification until after the harvest. 

The celebration of Juneteenth was strong until the early 1900’s, when various cultural and economic factors resulted in a gradual decline in the celebration and awareness of the importance of Juneteenth to the black community. 

It wasn’t until the Civil Rights movement of the 1950’s and 60’s when interest in Juneteenth began to reemerge. This was because some of the youth compared the struggle that they were facing to those of their ancestors. This was clear when student demonstrators, who participated in the  Atlanta civil rights campaign in the early 1960’s, wore Juneteenth freedom buttons. Interest for Juneteenth spiked again in 1968. After the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., Rev. Ralph Abernathy and his widow, Coretta Scott King, carried out the Poor People’s March to Washington D.C. where Rev. Abernathy called for people of all races, creeds, economic levels and professions to come to Washington to show support for the poor. Falling short on it’s goals, the Poor People’s March ended on June 19th, 1968, leading many of its attendees to return and celebrate Juneteenth in their home areas, many previously absent from the celebrations. Even today, the two largest Juneteenth celebrations founded after this March are held in Milwaukee and Minneapolis.

In 1979, Texas became the first state to make Juneteenth an official holiday. This was made possible by “the father of the Juneteenth holiday,” Rep. Al Edwards, an African American state legislator, whose successful passage of this bill marked Juneteenth as the first emancipation celebration. Since then, Edwards has actively sought to spread the awareness of Juneteenth all across America and as of today it is celebrated in 47 states. The three states that still have yet to do this are Hawaii and North & South Dakota. 

Some information for this article was gathered from https://www.pbs.org/wnet/african-americans-many-rivers-to-cross/history/what-is-juneteenth/ & https://www.juneteenth.com/history.htm

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