What Is Juneteenth?

100 Amazing Facts About the Negro: Learn about the most popular annual celebration of black emancipation.

Official Juneteenth Committee, Austin, Texas, June 19, 1900 (courtesy of Austin History Center, Austin Public Library)
Official Juneteenth Committee, Austin, Texas, June 19, 1900 (courtesy of Austin History Center, Austin Public Library)

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” ‘The way it was explained to me,’ ” one heir to the tradition is quoted in Hayes Turner’s essay, ” ‘the 19th of June wasn’t the exact day the Negro was freed. But that’s the day they told them that they was free … And my daddy told me that they whooped and hollered and bored holes in trees with augers and stopped it up with [gun] powder and light and that would be their blast for the celebration.’ “

Other Contenders

There were other available anniversaries for celebrating emancipation, to be sure, including the following:

* Sept. 22: the day Lincoln issued his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation Order in 1862

* Jan. 1: the day it took effect in 1863

* Jan. 31: the date the 13th Amendment passed Congress in 1865, officially abolishing the institution of slavery

* Dec. 6: the day the 13th Amendment was ratified that year

* April 3: the day Richmond, Va., fell

* April 9: the day Lee surrendered to Ulysses Grant at Appomattox, Va.

* April 16: the day slavery was abolished in the nation’s capital in 1862

* May 1: Decoration Day, which, as David Blight movingly recounts in Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory, the former slaves of Charleston, S.C., founded by giving the Union war dead a proper burial at the site of the fallen planter elite’s Race Course

* July 4: America’s first Independence Day, some “four score and seven years” before President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation

Each of these anniversaries has its celebrants today. Each has also had its share of conflicts and confusion. July 4 is compelling, of course, but it was also problematic for many African Americans, since the country’s founders had given in on slavery and their descendants had expanded it through a series of failed “compromises,” at the nadir of which Frederick Douglass had made his own famous declaration to the people of Rochester, N.Y., on July 5, 1852: “What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity.”

The most logical candidate for commemoration of the slave’s freedom was Jan. 1. In fact, the minute Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation had taken effect at the midpoint of the war, Northern black leaders like Douglass led massive celebrations in midnight jubilees; and on its 20th anniversary in 1883, they gathered again in Washington, D.C., to honor Douglass for all that he and his compatriots had achieved.

Yet even the original Emancipation Day had its drawbacks — not only because it coincided with New Year’s Day and the initiation dates of numerous other laws, but also because the underlying proclamation, while of enormous symbolic significance, didn’t free all the slaves, only those in the Confederate states in areas liberated by Union troops, and not those in the border states in which slavery remained legal until the ratification of the 13th Amendment. (Historians estimate that about 500,000 slaves — out of a total of 3.9 million — liberated themselves by escaping to Union lines between 1863 and the end of the war; the rest remained in slavery.)

Because of its partial effects, some scholars argue that perhaps the most significant aspect of the Emancipation Proclamation was the authorization of black men to fight in the war, both because their service proved to be crucial to the North’s war effort, and because it would be cited as irrefutable proof of the right of blacks to citizenship (which would be granted by the 14th Amendment).

 

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