An official federal holiday as of June 17, 2021, Juneteenth marks the oldest known celebration honoring the end of slavery in the United States.
Though many of us (ourselves included) may just be learning about the significance of this holiday, here at WBD, we pause to recognize this holiday as significant in American history and reflect on the long struggle for equal rights, as well as how far we still have to go.
The Emancipation Proclamation
The Emancipation Proclamation by President Abraham Lincoln, which became official on January 1, 1863, declared more than three million slaves living in the Confederate states to be free; however, even after the Civil War ended in 1865, a number of people had continued to remain enslaved, especially those living in remote areas.
Word of slavery’s end traveled slowly during this period, and more than two years had passed before the news reached African American who were largely isolated from Union armies. For them, life continued as if freedom did not exist.
It was on June 19, 1865, when Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger, along with more than 1,800 federal troops, arrived in Galveston, Texas to help take control of the state and ensure freedom for the last remaining slaves in the area.
“The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property, between former masters and slaves and the connection heretofore existing between them, becomes that between employer and hired labor. The Freedmen are advised to remain at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts; and they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.”
Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger, General Order Number 3
These newly freed African Americans celebrated by praying, dancing, and gathering for community feasts. Those gatherings recurred each year, commemorating what became known as Freedom Day, later Jubilee Day, and then Juneteenth Independence Day.
Importance of Juneteeth
The National Museum of African American History and Culture notes the post-emancipation period, known as the Reconstruction era (1865 – 1877), “marked an era of great hope, uncertainty, and struggle for the nation as a whole.” Former slaves started to hold positions of power from former slave owners in statehouses across the South, and even in the U.S. Congress. P.B.S. Pinchback briefly served as governor of Louisiana, the first Black man to serve in the role in any state in the country. In 1870, Hiram Revels represented Mississippi as the first Black U.S. senator. And in 1875, Blanche K. Bruce began a six-year tenure as a senator of the same state. An estimated 2,000 Black men held a position of some kind during Reconstruction era.
In 1872, a group of Black ministers and businessmen raised enough money to purchase 10 acres of parkland in Texas. The land, now known as Emancipation Park, offered surrounding Black communities a safe place they could celebrate Juneteenth.
Juneteenth commemorates the date enslaved people in Texas heard the news that they were liberated and marks a pivotal moment in U.S. and African American history. But it also marks a pivotal moment in Black history, a moment Henry Louis Gates Jr. describes perfectly:
“In one of the most inspiring grassroots efforts of the post-Civil War period, they transformed June 19 from a day of unheeded military orders into their own annual rite.”
Henry Louis Gates Jr.
The African Americans, Many Rivers to Cross
At WBD, we believe in a culture of learning, and this includes reflecting on our nation’s long, tried history. This year and each year after, we pledge to remember Juneteenth as a holiday that doesn’t mark a document, battle, birthday, or national tragedy, but the fundamental promise of America becoming more completely realized.
Author: Angela Suresh, Senior Associate at WBD, is a program assistant and international development professional engaged with the firm’s Private Sector Engagement Support award with the United States Agency for International Development. Angela has recently graduated with her M.A. in Strategic Communications from John Hopkins University focusing on diversity, equity, and accountability in the workplace.