Juneteenth — a combination of the words June and nineteenth — is one of the oldest known holidays commemorating the end of slavery in the United States. It was on June 19, 1865, that the nation’s last enslaved people — a group in Texas — learned that slavery had been outlawed and that they were free. The events leading to what many call “America’s true Independence Day” began with the Emancipation Proclamation, signed by President Abraham Lincoln on January 1, 1863.
The order, issued during the American Civil War (1861-1865), freed millions of slaves in 11 Confederate States: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia. However, the Union-loyal border states of Delaware, Maryland, Missouri, and Kentucky were exempt and continued to practice slavery. The 13th Amendment, passed by the Unites States Congress on January 31, 1865, closed the loophole and made slavery illegal throughout the country.
The combined legislation helped free all but a group of about 250,000 slaves in Texas. Unaware of the new laws, they remained in bondage until June 19, 1865, when Union General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, to announce General Order No. 3. It stated: “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 rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired laborer.”
Juneteenth was born the following year when a group of former Texan slaves celebrated their newly-found freedom with cookouts, dancing, and prayers. Over time, Freedom Day, or Black Independence Day, as it is also called, has been observed in varying degrees in most US states. It was even declared a state holiday in Texas in 1980. However, the holiday is still poorly understood outside of the African American community and often overshadowed by the July 4th Independence Day celebration. But the growing awareness of continued systemic racism in the US is finally bringing forth Juneteenth’s national significance.
Starting 2021, Juneteenth will be a state holiday in Virginia, New York, and Pennsylvania. Oregon and Washington recently passed legislation to make Juneteenth a holiday starting in 2022. Large corporations, like Twitter, Nike, and Spotify, have also begun to include June 19 to their annual roster of paid employee holidays.
The steadily growing recognition is not enough for Opal Lee, who has been fighting for Juneteenth to be a national holiday since 1989. The 94-year-old says, “None of us are free until we are all free. And we weren’t free on the Fourth of July in 1776. I’m advocating we celebrate from the 19th of June until the 4th of July. That would be celebrating freedom.”
Every June 19, the activist brings attention to the quest by leading a 2.5 mile-long walk down West Lancaster Avenue in Fort Worth, Texas. The distance symbolizes the 2.5 years it took for the slaves in Texas to find out they had been freed by the Emancipation Proclamation. Lee has also taken her cause online with a petition for 3 million signatures on Change.org. So far, over 1.6 million people have signed up, and the numbers are increasing daily. While the 94-year-old is confident that Juneteenth will soon be declared a national holiday, she just hopes it will be during her lifetime.