A Primer on Black Independence Day

Fuzzy on your Juneteenth history? Some basic background to help boost your historical street cred.

Image by Jenny Mathew

So, you've heard about the celebration called Juneteenth. You may have bought a T-shirt at some point to signal your historical street cred. You may even have attended a Juneteenth picnic or paused to recognize it in some way. But, admit it, you don't really know all that much about the day. And you may even be wondering why, each year it seems, it's growing in its cachet. Not to worry, that's why we're here. Consider this your quick and dirty primer.

Think of Juneteenth as black Independence Day.

On Monday, June 19, 1865, the Union Gen. Gordon Granger stood in Galveston, Texas and informed a group of residents that the world as they'd known it had come to an end: All slaves were now free.

The newly liberated slaves began celebrating immediately. They commemorated that day every year after, giving rise to Juneteenth, a celebration that is now observed throughout the United States.

There are several parallels between the Fourth of July and Juneteenth. Both celebrate American freedom and independence and feature the same kinds of activities: outdoor picnics with games, races, barbecue and red soda pop—a Juneteenth staple. For Juneteenth, there are typically speeches, rodeos, dances, church services and readings from the Emancipation Proclamation.

Juneteenth became such a large and important holiday that in 1872 ex-slaves in Houston purchased land for parks devoted to hosting the celebrations. As Texans migrated, they took their Juneteenth traditions with them to Louisiana, Oklahoma, Arkansas and California.

But it wasn't until 1980 that June 19 became Emancipation Day in Texas, a paid state holiday. In 1997, Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., and former Rep. J.C. Watts, R-Okla., sponsored a resolution honoring Juneteenth. Today, 17 states have formal observations of the date. Sen. Barack Obama and Rep. Danny Davis, D-Ill., have both supported calls to make Juneteenth a national holiday.

Ironically, many slaves earned their freedom long before June 19, 1865. In the midst of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln issued a preliminary emancipation order on Sept. 22, 1862 that would free slaves in the rebel Confederate states if those states did not return to the Union by Jan. 1, 1863. The final Emancipation Proclamation was issued on Jan. 1, 1863.

Slaves living in Maryland, Delaware, Kentucky, West Virginia and Missouri remained in bondage, as did slaves who lived in Union-controlled territory until the passage of the 13th amendment to the Constitution.

With each Union victory, however, the news of earlier emancipation traveled across the South, and eventually all the slaves were freed—launching celebrations across the calendar.